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South Korea’s Generational Happiness Gap [Korea Herald]

(Published: April 5, 2024 – 05:37)

Happiness popped back in the news recently with the release of the “2024 World Happiness Report.” The report made waves in the US because of a sharp drop in happiness, particularly among people under the age of 30, which fell to 62nd. The country ranked 23rd, marking the first time that the US dropped out of the top 20, out of 143 countries surveyed.

The report made fewer waves in South Korea because it confirmed the established media narrative, both domestic and international, that South Koreans are unhappy. In the 2024 report, South Korea ranked 52nd, though this was up from 57th in 2023.

Rankings of happiness make good headlines and provide fodder for political partisans to bolster their cause. Typically, those in power highlight positive happiness ratings while those out of power focus on unhappiness. At a deeper level, the rankings reveal deep-seated differences between the right and left. People on the right celebrate happiness as a sign of contentment with the status quo, while people on the left focus on unhappiness to justify arguments for change.

Defining and discussing the happiness of a country is more difficult than the flashy rankings make it seem. Determining happiness using quantitative measures gives, at best, only a superficial picture of this complex concept.

The “2024 World Happiness Report” defines happiness in an explanation of the methodology used to produce the report. “Our happiness rankings are based on life evaluations, as the more stable measure of the quality of people’s lives.” The report uses The Gallup World Poll, which “asks respondents to evaluate their current life as a whole using the image of a ladder, with the best possible life for them as a10 and worst possible as a 0.” The 2024 report uses an average of data obtained from 2021 to 2023.

The use of a visual image instead of a questionnaire provides continuity across languages and cultures, but the question about happiness still has to be asked in a wide range of languages. The linguistic expression of happiness varies among languages and cultures, which no doubt affects where participants place themselves on the ladder.

A closer look at results for South Korea reveals several salient trends. In the under-30 group, South Korea ranked 52nd, the same as its overall ranking, but the average evaluation of 6.503 was higher than the average evaluation of 6.058 for people of all ages. This indicates that younger South Koreans are happier than older generations, which counters the media narrative of unhappy youth.

At the other end of the age spectrum, South Korea ranked 59th for those age 60 and above. At 5.642, the average evaluation was almost one point, or one step on the ladder, below those under 30. The report did not give averages for lower middle age (31-44) and upper middle age (45-59) groups, but South Korea ranked 45th for lower middle age and 55th for upper middle age. Overall, the suggest that happiness in South Korea declines with age.

Many other nations around the world fit a pattern in which the youth being the happiest and the old being the least happy, but among advanced democratic nations the reverse is common. Among the top-ten most happy nations (eight in Western Europe plus Australia and Israel) those over 60 were the happiest, while only in Israel was this age group the least happy. In eight of these nations, the young and lower middle age groups were the least happy.

Most advanced democracies, particularly those in Western Europe, have established pensions and health care systems that allow retirees to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Though South Korea has affordable health care, the pension system is weaker than these countries, causing more seniors to fall into poverty. This is one of the main reasons for the decline in happiness among seniors. Another reason is the rapid social change that has left many seniors feeling alienated from their families and society.

The generational happiness gap leaves South Korea with a dilemma. Improving the pension system so that it allows retirees to maintain a middle-class lifestyle is the obvious policy answer. The problem, of course, is that it increases the financial burden on working-age people. The population of that group peaked in 2016 and has dropped by one million since then. As the decline accelerates and the burden on working-age people increases, happiness will decline, particularly among the young. To solve this dilemma, South Korea will need to focus on increasing human and AI productivity to create more from fewer people.

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