Majority of S. Koreans are pessimistic about future of their country

Posted on : 2019-10-06 14:14 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Low birth rate, aging society, polarization, and environmental factors contribute to gloomy outlook
South Korean civic demonstrators call for government action on climate change in Seoul on Sept. 21. (photo pool)
South Korean civic demonstrators call for government action on climate change in Seoul on Sept. 21. (photo pool)

“A lot of my friends and family are worried about whether Korean society is sustainable because of the low birth rate, the aging society, polarization, and particulate matter in the air. When you think about apartment prices, educational challenges, and unstable employment, it’s gradually becoming harder to get married and raise kids,” said Kim Su-mi, 22, (pseudonym), who is taking a break from her studies at a university in Seoul.

Kim is anxious about her future, and she feels frustrated that hard work won’t make much of a difference. “Financially speaking, I think I’m in the middle class. I think my quality of life will improve if I live alone, but that I’ll have trouble living a better life if I get married and have kids,” she said.

Kim is one of an increasing number of Koreans who see a gloomy future in store for them. That was reflected in a poll that found that just two out of 10 Koreans are optimistic about the sustainability of Korean society when politics, the economy, society, and the environment are considered. Significantly, people in their 20s and 60s tended to be least optimistic. Not only are a majority of Koreans anxious about the future, but both the youth, who will lead the country into the future, and the elderly, who endured the challenges of Korea’s development period, are expressing doubts about the sustainability of Korean society — both indications that a serious crisis is brewing.

From Sept. 25-27, polling organization Global Research carried out a panel-based online poll of 1,000 Korean adults around the country commissioned by the Hankyoreh Economy and Society Research Institute to inquire about the public attitude toward the sustainability of Korean society. The poll had a reliability of 95% and a sample error of ±3.1%.

When asked how they felt about the sustainability of Korean society in light of political, economic, social, and environmental factors, only 21.7% said they were optimistic. Nearly double (42.1%) the respondents said they felt pessimistic, while 36.1% felt neutral.

There were clear differences between generations and classes in their attitude toward the future. Those in their 20s (19%) and 60s (14.8%) were the cohorts that were the least optimistic about the sustainability of Korean society. Respondents were also asked to rate sustainability in the five categories of politics, economy, social insurance, environment, and foreign policy. When the responses of the “future generation” of people in their 20s are taken separately, the environment was the only category in which they were more likely to express optimism than other age groups, with ratings of the other categories generally low. That prompts the analysis that Koreans in their 20s are becoming more anxious about the future.

Interestingly, 30.4% of respondents in their 20s said they expect their quality of life to improve in the future. But this response largely depended upon financial status. 57.6% of better-off 20-somethings (middle class and above) thought that their quality of life will improve regardless of the social structure, more than double the percentage (23.1%) of worse-off 20-somethings (lower middle class and below) who responded in the same way.

Increasing concerns about the environment

Broken down by categories, respondents were most concerned about environmental factors, including air pollution and energy. Just 12.4% of respondents expressed optimism about the environment, which was the lowest of all five categories, including the economy. Fears about the environment are having a direct impact on our lives, with the least optimism found, by age, among people in their 40s (7.9%) and 50s (9.7%) and, by gender, among women, where optimism was in the single digits.

“I have two daughters in elementary school, and we’re pretty afraid of particulate matter. Things have gotten a little better recently, but it’s scary when there’s a lot of fine dust in the air. There’s not going to be a dramatic improvement anytime soon, and I feel frustrated about factors that are outside of our control, like China,” said Park Mi-yeong, 44, who lives in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

“I always thought that environmental issues were an issue that didn’t affect my life, but with particulate matter levels getting higher, it’s starting to really hit home.”

Some of the contributing factors are the fact that social media makes it easy to view extreme climate events happening around the world and that environmental activists such as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg have been working to raise awareness of the dangers of climate change.

The category of politics, including democracy and civic participation, was the one about which the most respondents expressed optimism (32.6%). This appears to reflect the Korean public’s success at bringing down the president, the most powerful figure in the land, during the candlelight revolution in 2016.

Aging society and low birth the greatest source of insecurity

When asked to identify the greatest source of insecurity in regard to the future of Korean society, the largest percentage of respondents (25.6%) selected demographic changes, such as the low birth rate and the aging society. While the government is aware of the severity of these issues and has been investing heavily in programs aimed at counteracting them, the situation doesn’t seem to be improving. Last year, the total fertility rate fell below to 0.98, making South Korea the only country in the world with a rate lower than 1. And in a rapidly aging society, the elderly poverty rate stands at 45.7%.

Intensifying class conflict and political polarization

The intensifying class conflict, including the polarization of assets, income, and education, is another chronic source of insecurity, selected by 25.2% of respondents. Respondents in their 20s and 30s were more likely to express unease about class conflict than about the low birth rate and the aging society. One apparent factor here is the intensifying social debate about the haves and the have nots, which was revealed during the recent debate over the appointment of Cho Kuk as Minister of Justice. On a similar note, the most common response to a question about the worst conflict in Korean society was class conflict, at 43.9%. Other conflicts identified by respondents were ideological (29%), regional (6.4%), generational (6.1%), gender-based (6%), and inter-Korean (5.6%).

Stable economy necessary for sustainability

In that case, what’s most necessary for making Korean society sustainable? A whopping 64.4% of respondents pointed to the economic sector, including economic growth and good jobs. That was by far the most common response, cutting across gender, age, and class. Other responses were politics, including democracy and civic participation (13.7%); the environment (9.7%); foreign policy, including inter-Korean relations (6.4%); and social insurance, including protecting vulnerable groups (5.7%).

“These results show that Koreans have a deep-rooted belief that our future won’t be sustainable without economic growth and the jobs that would be created as a result. But one of the problems that our society must overcome if it’s to become more sustainable is precisely that growth-centered view of the economy. Resolving that dilemma is the central challenge facing our society,” said Yun Hui-ung, head of the Public Opinion Analysis Center at Opinion Live.

By Kim So-youn, senior research fellow at the Hankyoreh Economy and Society Research Institute

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