Why are Koreans so unhappy?
In recent years, Korea has ranked low among developed countries in ``happiness surveys." This comes as a no surprise to anyone who has had a discussion with members of the ``2040 generation," a newly coined term for people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, who are deeply dissatisfied with society and the direction of the country. A similar conversation with people in their 50s and older reveals greater satisfaction, but tempered with worries about aging.
The low level of happiness in Korea is odd considering the rapid rise in living standards over the last 20 years. Koreans today have never been as well off as they are today. The quality of housing and healthcare has never been better.
Despite notoriously long working hours, more people enjoy travel and hobbies. By most measures of material success, Korea has become a fully developed nation. After Japan, it is the second nation in Asia with a large population to join the club of rich countries.
With so much material success, why are Koreans so unhappy? The answer is not easy, for if it were, politicians would have already claimed the cause of happiness as their own. Instead, the answer lies in a complex web of stresses amid high expectations.
Years of rapid economic growth and growing living standards naturally created high expectations. During the boom years, Koreans expected that things would get better and they did. Incomes rose faster than the cost of living, creating a growing middle class that could afford an apartment and a car.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Koreans complained about the gap between the rich and the poor, but standards of living were rising for everyone and expectations were high. People in those days believed that education and hard work paid off because, for the most part, it did. The process of democratization that began in the 1980s made people feel better about the direction of the country.
As Korea become more developed and democracy took root, the pace of improvement slowed, creating a feeling of stagnation. Frustrations over perceived economic stagnation propelled President Lee Myung-bak to a landslide victory in the 2007 presidential election. The new president soon faced a worldwide economic crisis that has dampened growth throughout his term. Dampened growth on top of naturally slowing growth has exacerbated the feeling of stagnation to the point where few Koreans today think the economy is doing well.
The feeling of stagnation causes increased competition in an already highly competitive society. With fewer people getting ahead, people naturally try to get an advantage by investing more in education and their career. This starts a cycle of stress because the investment costs money and time, creating yet more stress.
As a result, the average Korean family today is highly stressed. Parents feel pressured to send their children to private institutes so that they will be able to compete in the educational system. The expense creates financial stress, which causes parents to work more, creating stresses on time management.
The large block of young singles faces different stresses, but the causes are the same. The feeling of stagnation causes them to invest greatly in their career to get ahead. Investment in a career, of course, means long hours and worries about office politics. For those who fail to get a ``good job," low-wage jobs and low-income self-employment are the only alternatives. Taking its name from its average monthly income, this group become known as the ``880,000-won generation" in the late 2000s.
Taken together, Koreans today feel great stress over money because money is the main tool that helps them and their children get ahead in what they perceive to be a stagnant economy. The desire to get ahead comes from a deep-seated belief that progress is inevitable and that staying in place equals failure. Stress over money cause people to delay or forgo marriage and childbirth, causing Korea to suffer one of the lowest birthrates in the world.
Clearly something must be done because the psychological cost of the stress is too high for society to bear. If the low birthrate continues, South Korea's population could fall from 49 million today to 37 million in 2100 according to United Nations Population Division projections in 2011. At that pace, Koreans will eventually vanish from the earth.
What could that something be? Society needs new values. The value placed on continuous, if not endless, economic progress that took root in the mid-1960s needs to be replaced with something else. New social values will create new expectations that will change how people view themselves and society.
New social values emerge slowly as society changes, but they gain traction through clear political leadership. Political leaders, who articulate emerging social values and offer solutions in keeping with those values, earn their place in history. All of which underscores the importance of the presidential election in December this year.
The writer is a professor at the Department of Korean Language Education at Seoul National University. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.