There is no need to raise a hoopla about the government statistics office coming up with a new indicator. But I find the new measurement a meaningful milestone in our history. The Korean government, which was entirely engrossed with engineering economic growth after recovering from the ruins of war in the 1960s, finally realized that the happiness and wellbeing of its people cannot be measured by how much they earn.
Economic growth was once the country’s ultimate goal, an obsession of the military regimes of the 1970s and 1980s. Politicians and bureaucrats believed everything else should be sacrificed for economic prosperity. Swept up in the dizzy industrialization and modernization campaign, most people were brainwashed to go along. Koreans worked the longest hours in the world, often in harsh conditions, without any complaint because they thought it was the right thing to do to contribute to the economic march. People who died of overwork were praised as if they died for their country in battle. Factory workers, civic activists and intelligentsia who questioned industrial accidents, breaches of civic and human rights and environmental issues from rapid and unregulated industrial activities were framed as communists or threats to the social order.
We were obsessed with catching up and getting ahead fast during the development period. But Koreans cannot be overly criticized. Their accomplishments over a short period of time awed the world. If they had not taken such urgent collective actions, Koreans may not have achieved the rags-to-riches miracle of today.
When a country is very poor, a better economy does not mean being able to dine out more or buy an extra TV set. It is matter of life and death, involving the means to eat enough to survive. If an economy improves, so do people’s nutrition and hygiene standards. Fewer people need to risk their lives doing hazardous work. More people can afford to get timely medical care. In short, people are able to live longer and healthier lives. Korea’s average life expectancy, which was 52 to 53 years in the early 1960s, is now 80, which encapsulates the dramatic transition in the quality of Korean people’s lives thanks to economic prosperity.
Preoccupation with economic success and development waned from the 1990s, but still many Koreans regard income levels as the most important criteria to gauge wellbeing and contentment in life.
Korea now stands at the gateway to affluence. Daily food is no longer a concern. We have reached a stage where we seriously must contemplate what matters most in our lives.
The statistical office’s new index reflects changes in perspectives on wellbeing. To decide what makes people happy and direct public policies toward the proper goals, we should take account of various other factors beyond income levels.
The quality of life index does not offer as clear-cut indications about the state of things as economic data does. It compiles various incompatible and diverse elements in a wide range of categories. The outcome cannot be condensed into a single statistic. But that is why this index is important. It shows that a wide range of aspects must be examined to measure the quality of our lives. A living standard cannot be defined simply by an economic growth rate, the level of balance in wealth, and good environment.
When the government turns its eyes beyond statistics to assess whether its people are happy in their places in the world, it will realize that it has a lot of work to do and a long way to go. A similar “Better Life Index” compiled by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development shows that Korea is relatively ahead in education, safety and civilian participation for their income standards in the advanced-economy group. But it is among the lowest in community life, environment, health and balance in work and leisure. In fact, Korea may be doing poorly in those fields even when compared to countries with lower income levels. The outcome points to the areas Korea must improve.
There is no simple answer to the question, “What is a good life?” But we have to come to some kind of social consensus on the living standards we all aspire through dialogue. The government and society should address the question with the momentum of the new index so they could reach an agreement on a new direction for the country.
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, July 3, Page 34
*The author is a professor of economics at the University of Cambridge.
BY Chang Ha-joon