Whenever I visit Korea, as I did several weeks ago, the pace of change never ceases to amaze me. Fashion, food, language, and the shape of the skyline are in constant flux. More English phrases and slang pepper everyday conversation. Koreans look taller and more beautiful on each visit. Whole neighborhoods transform. There are more exquisitely artful cafes, trendy bars, and new ways to spend your hard-earned money. But one thing that doesn’t change is that Korean life is relentlessly hard-driving and fast-paced. Whether in work or play, Koreans go full-blast at whatever they’re doing. They strive endlessly to improve themselves, to acquire wealth, to get the best jobs, to be the best-looking, and to have the best of everything. Life is competitive and pressured, and yes, Koreans are stressed.
Why the stress? On the surface, Korea has nothing to complain about. In a matter of decades, it has progressed from being one of the poorest nations on earth – behind nations like the Democratic Republic of Congo – to being among the wealthiest with per capita income of over $30,000. It was the first country to go from being a recipient of OECD aid to becoming a donor. It is a leader in shipbuilding, LCD screens, mobile handsets, and memory chips. It has the fastest internet in the world. And its K-pop culture has actually made it appear, dare I say, hip in the eyes of the world?
Koreans have never lived so well. Economic growth today is still healthy at a shade under 4%, and Korea certainly punches above its fighting weight in the global arena. Yet a recent survey of OECD countries found that Korea ranked 31st out of 32 countries in terms of life satisfaction – and anecdotally, dissatisfaction was evident in many of my conversations.
The deepest dissatisfaction seems to be among those in their 20s, 30s, and 40s — generations that have high expectations even as the days of fast development are fading. Older generations seem relatively happier because they lived through times of low expectations when there was no place to go but up, when education and hard work paid off, and when income inequality was less noticeable because life was getting better for everyone.
My own view is that while Koreans are jovial enough, some unhappiness is inevitable when expectations are so high. Many reach for a lifestyle that matches the glamour and prosperity that Seoul’s image projects, but that simply isn’t possible for everyone.
Wage growth hasn’t kept up with economic growth, and one problem is that there aren’t enough high-paying jobs for everyone. Historically, education has been the path to success, and today, almost 80% of Korean high school students go on to university – far more than the OECD average of 56%. The problem is that only 55% of them can get college-level jobs after graduation. The large conglomerates that dominate the economy are creating more jobs overseas than in Korea as they become global players, and smaller enterprises don’t have the depth to employ all the graduates. Many graduates end up vastly underemployed, and 4 of 10 in their 20s and 30s will say they feel overeducated. According to Samsung Economic Research Institute, having more people skip university could add a full percentage point to growth.
Another source of pressure is that many Koreans see a single road to success and compete for the same things. Society is diversifying, but Korea is a ways off from individuals inventing their own unique paths to success. Instead, masses of parents focus on getting their children into the best private tutoring institutes and schools. As crazy as it sounds, some may even pay for plastic surgery because it can help with job or marriage prospects. And all of this is incredibly expensive and stressful. According to McKinsey, more than 50% of middle-income households spend more than they earn each month – and that is a problem.
The constant struggle to establish social status explains how accidents like the April sinking of the “Sewol” ferry – where nearly 300 students died while on a school trip to an island – can suddenly stir up deep emotions. That tragedy, which resulted partly from corruption among the wealthy, turned into a symbol of everything that’s wrong in the economy and has been spurring massive demonstrations.
But lest I leave you with the impression that all is hopeless, fear not. Koreans are far from being a personally depressed lot, and a walk down any street in Seoul will reveal high spirits and energy. Perhaps one way to look at it is to see that Korea’s malaise – that of never being satisfied and always wanting more — is also its strength.