Happy ever after?
The author, former chief economist at the Asian Development Bank and a senior adviser for international economic affairs to former President Lee Myung-bak, is a professor of economics at Korea University.
The protracted Covid-19 crisis has impacted the lives of medical staff, seniors, parents with small children, laid-off workers, small merchants and the self-employed. The rest of the population is equally prone to the Covid-19 blues. Koreans strictly adhere to mask wearing and are constantly fretful of getting the disease. They don’t want to be scolded for breaking the mitigation rules. It cannot be known when lives will be normalized due to the slow progress in vaccinations. Spring has come and flowers have bloomed. But it does not feel like spring due to concerns about the economy and infection.
South Koreans have become significantly unhappier under the hardships of the pandemic. According to a happiness poll by Gallup, which rated people’s happiness on a scale of zero to 10, the average for Koreans was 5.79, below the highest 7.89 for Finnish, 7.03 for Americans and 6.12 for Japanese — and on a similar level with the Chinese. The figure for Korea fell from 5.87 a year earlier. In another poll by Ipsos on happiness levels across the globe last year, 53 percent of Koreans answered “Very happy” or “Mostly happy,” lower than the Chinese (93 percent) and Americans (70 percent). In the World Happiness Report published every March by the United Nations based on per capita incomes, life expectancies, freedom of choice, corruption levels and other factors, South Korea ranked 62nd among 156 countries, more or less on par with the Philippines at 61.
Korean happiness levels have been skidding for 10 years. In a UN report in 2013, Korea’s happiness index was 6.23, and its rank was an unimpressive 41. In the Ipsos poll, 71 percent of Koreans declared themselves happy in 2011, 18 percentage points higher than now. In most happiness surveys, respondents prize health, family relationships, careers, wealth and contentment with life having meaning or direction. But more Koreans are feeling less fulfilled due to family, work and economic conditions.
Will the future be any better? Hope is not in sight. The Wall Street Journal on March 12 reported that the country’s low growth and low fertility rate pose a bleak future for the Korean economy. According to an International Monetary Fund estimate, Korea will grow at 2.1 percent on average from 2018 to 2025, narrowing the gap with the 1.6 percent average for the U.S. economy, even though the country’s per capita income remains half that of America. This loss of steam in growth bodes badly for our hopes of catching up with the richer countries.
The article pointed out that housing prices and soaring household debt pose a serious challenge to the country’s growth potential. Its long-term potential is even worse with the fertility rate at 0.84 as of last year. That figure suggests that out of 50 adult Korean couples, 42 babies will be born. That’s not enough to keep the population steady. Since people are living longer, the working population will thin out. By 2040, Koreans aged 65 and older will make up 34 percent of the total population and those older than 80 more than 10 percent, according to a Statistics Korea estimate. The working population aged from 15 to 62, currently at 37.5 million, will shrink by 9 million. The government has spent colossally to encourage people to have kids, but the fertility rate has been slipping inexorably. Who would want to have children when they are not happy and not sure where they will be in the future? The humble dream of starting a family, owning a residence and becoming middle class has become distant for many Koreans.
Minari, the film by Lee Issac Chung that was nominated for six awards at this year’s Academy Awards, is about a family of South Korean immigrants trying to start a new life in America in the 1980s. Although they struggle, they rely on each other and sustain the hope of achieving the American dream. South Koreans endured a half century of deprivation after the Korean War with hopes for better lives. We must rebuild the country as a place with happy dreams and hopes for the future. Politicians must do their job of addressing economic challenges and create a society where people can become happier.