Posted : 2013-01-01 18:09
Updated : 2013-01-01 18:09

Park to tackle 'national unhappiness'

By Kim Tong-hyung

In her New Year's message to the nation, President-elect Park Geun-hye vowed to open a new era of ''national happiness,'' something she has been saying endlessly since declaring her bid for Cheong Wa Dae last year.

While Park is prone to talk in cliche, the nation can't afford her to think in cliche. A toxic cocktail of problems over the past years has left Koreans looking as collectively happy as lemmings near a cliff and combating this would require political honesty more than easy bluster.

There has been growing international discussions about finding a better way to judge a nation's wellbeing rather than just measuring its economic output. But the verdict on Korea seems unanimous whether seen through traditional indices or the lenses of new ideas: It's the unhappiest country in the rich world and people here are more miserable than ever.

The Korean dissatisfaction with life owes to the widening gulf between the rich and poor and an evaporating belief in social mobility. Gruesomely long working hours and the gender apartheid at work and home are also a strain in a country facing the challenges posed by softening growth rates and a workforce aging in dog years.

And the worsening economic conditions have provided the root for social dysfunction: Recent government figures show that suicides are on the verge to overtake cancer as the nation's biggest killer.

Park's mission to pull up the country's gross national happiness measurement would indeed be a difficult one when the blizzard of bad data suggests that the level of contentment here will continue to sink.

A series of economic downturns in recent years only further widened the chasm between the wealthiest and the rest, and the diminishing belief in social mobility has some observers wondering whether the country is entering conditions that are conducive to a perfect storm of civil discontent.

Average Koreans continue to see their living standards deteriorate as wages fail to keep up with the rising cost of living. The working population's share of the national income was safely above 60 percent in the early-to-mid 1990s, but fell to 58 percent in 2000 and only rose to 59.2 percent in 2010, according to government figures.

The nation's historically-high household debt, of nearly one quadrillion won, matches an entire year's GDP, while an alarmingly large portion of working-age Koreans remain sidelined from the labor market.

It could be said that people are paying the premium for a life stuck somewhere between mediocrity and disappointment. Koreans worked an average of 2,090 hours in 2011, topping the OECD average by more than 300 hours.

The reality is probably even worse. The OECD calculations also included part-time workers and others on precarious employment and the mileage of regular workers would be closer to 2,700. A survey by the Ministry of Employment and Labor showed that nine out of 10 companies are riding their employees beyond the legal overtime limit of 12 hours per week.

Female and non-regular workers have it dramatically worse. Official figures show women in their 30s are dropping out of the labor market at an alarming rate and the lack of freedom in setting a work-life balance has been identified as the culprit.

The pay gap between men and women also remains wide, so when couples discuss how they are going to afford childcare, it's normally the wife who stays at home. On average, a non-regular employee will earn just around 60 percent of what his or her regulator counterpart will take home.

''The problems are interconnected: the country can no longer afford to waste its highly-educated women as an asset when worsening family finances and an increasingly top-heavy population structure makes larger labor participation by women critical,'' said Choi Byung-il, president and CEO of the Korea Economic Research Institute (KERI). .

''This of course requires a social system that enables women to set a work-life balance but also a deconstruction of the Korea's old corporate culture epitomized by long working hours.''

Korea finished 32nd out of the 34 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries in the organization's ''happiness index'' last year with Turkey and Mexico rounding up the bottom three in that order.

The happiness index wass an improved variation of the OECD's Better Life Index announced earlier with indicators of economic stability, inequality, poverty, trust of government and gender discrimination newly included in the measurement. Korea ranked 26th among OECD members in the Better Life Index in 2011, dragged down by bad ratings in the categories of housing, environment and work-life balance.

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