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Korea performs moderately well in overall measures of well-being, as shown by the fact that it ranks higher than average in several topics in the Better Life Index.
Money, while it cannot buy happiness, is an important means to achieving higher living standards. In Korea, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is 17 337 USD a year, less than the OECD average of 23 047 USD a year. But there is a considerable gap between the richest and poorest – the top 20% of the population earn more than five times as much as the bottom 20%.
In terms of employment, nearly 64% of people aged 15 to 64 in Korea have a paid job, slightly below the OECD employment average of 66%. Some 75% of men are in paid work, compared with 53% of women, suggesting that women encounter difficulties in balancing work and family life. People in Korea work 2 090 hours a year, more than the OECD average of 1 776 hours.
Having a good education is an important requisite for finding a job. In Korea, 80% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, higher than the OECD average of 74%. This is truer of men than women, as 85% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 76% of women. Korea is a top-performing country in terms of the quality of its educational system. The average student scored 541 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This score is higher than the OECD average of 497 and one of the highest in the OECD. On average in Korea, girls outperformed boys by 11 points, slightly more than the average OECD gap of 9 points.
In terms of health, life expectancy at birth in Korea is 81 years, one year higher than the OECD average of 80 years. Life expectancy for women is 85 years, compared with 78 for men. The level of atmospheric PM10 – tiny air pollutant particles small enough to enter and cause damage to the lungs – is 33 micrograms per cubic meter, considerably higher than the OECD average of 21 micrograms per cubic meter. Korea also performs below the OECD average in terms of water quality, as 78% of people say they are satisfied with the quality of their water, compared with an OECD average of 84%.
Concerning the public sphere, there is a moderate sense of community and high levels of civic participation in Korea, where 77% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in time of need, less than the OECD average of 90%. Voter turnout, a measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process, was 76% during recent elections; this figure is higher than the OECD average of 72%. Social and economic status can affect voting rates; voter turnout for the top 20% of the population is estimated at nearly 100% and for the bottom 20% it is 71%, a much larger difference than the OECD average gap of 12 percentage points, suggesting a need to work for broader social inclusion in Korea’s democratic institutions
In general, Koreans are slightly more satisfeid with their lives than the OECD average, with 82% of people saying they have more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc). This figure is slightly higher than the OECD average of 80%.
OECD in Action
Lessons from PISA for Korea
The report Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for Korea aims at helping Korea to identify and address education policy challenges in an international perspective. To this end, it examines the Korean education system through the prism of PISA 2009, considers recent policy developments and suggests specific policy options to foster improvements. The report also provides an in-depth analysis of the experience of other high-performing countries.Read this report
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Korea in Detail
Housing – Korea expand
Living in satisfactory housing conditions is one of the most important aspects of people’s lives. Housing is essential to meet basic needs, such as shelter, but it is not just a question of four walls and a roof. Housing should offer a place to sleep and rest where people feel safe and have privacy and personal space; somewhere they can raise a family. All of these elements help make a house a home. And of course there is the question whether people can afford adequate housing.
Housing costs take up a large share of the household budget and represent the largest single expenditure for many individuals and families, by the time you add up elements such as rent, gas, electricity, water, furniture or repairs. In Korea, households on average spend 16% of their gross adjusted disposable income on keeping a roof over their heads, the lowest level in the OECD, where the average is 21%.
In addition to housing costs it is also important to examine living conditions, such as the average number of rooms shared per person and whether households have access to basic facilities. In Korea, 73% of people say they are satisfied with their current housing situation, much less than the OECD average of 87% and one of the lowest rates in the OECD. This low level of subjective satisfaction reflects Korea’s mixed performance in objective housing indicators.
The number of rooms in a dwelling, divided by the number of persons living there, indicates whether residents are living in crowded conditions. Overcrowded housing may have a negative impact on physical and mental health, relations with others and children’s development. In addition, dense living conditions are often a sign of inadequate water and sewage supply. In Korea, the average home contains 1.4 rooms per person, less than the OECD average of 1.6 rooms per person. In terms of basic facilities, 95.8% of people in Korea live in dwellings with private access to an indoor flushing toilet, less than the OECD average of 97.8%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Income – Korea expand
While money may not buy happiness, it is an important means to achieving higher living standards and thus greater well-being. Higher economic wealth may also improve access to quality education, healthcare and housing.
Household net-adjusted disposable income is the amount of money that a household earns each year after tax. It represents the money available to a household for spending on goods or services. In Korea, the average household net-adjusted disposable income is 17 337 USD a year, lower than the OECD average of 23 047 USD.
Household financial wealth is the total value of a household’s financial worth. In Korea, the average household net financial wealth is estimated at 26 036 USD, lower than the OECD average of 40 516 USD. While the ideal measure of household wealth should include real assets (e.g. land and dwellings), such information is currently available for only a small number of OECD countries.
Despite a general increase in living standards across OECD countries over the past fifteen years, not all people have benefited from this to the same extent. In Korea, the average net adjusted disposable income of the top 20% of the population is an estimated 32 860 USD a year, whereas the bottom 20% live on an estimated 5 737 USD a year.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Jobs – Korea expand
Having a job brings many important benefits, including: providing a source of income, improving social inclusion, fulfilling one’s own aspirations, building self-esteem and developing skills and competencies. In Korea, close to 64% of the working-age population aged 15 to 64 has a paid job. This figure is slightly lower than the OECD employment average of 66%. Employment rates are generally higher for individuals with a higher level of education; in Korea an estimated 77% of individuals with at least a tertiary education have a paid job, compared with an estimated 46% for those without an upper secondary education. This 31 percentage point difference is slightly lower than the OECD average of 37 percentage points and suggests the job market in Korea is relatively inclusive.
Women are still less likely than men to participate in the labour market. In Korea, 53% of women have jobs. This is less than the OECD average of 60% and less than the 75% employment rate of men in Korea. This 22 percentage point gender difference is much higher than the OECD average of 12 percentage points and suggests employment opportunities for women could be improved.
Young Koreans, aged 15-24, however, are faring well with an unemployment rate of 9.6% compared with the OECD average of 16.2%.
Unemployed persons are defined as those who are not currently working but are willing to do so and actively searching for work. Long-term unemployment can have a large negative effect on feelings of well-being and self-worth and result in a loss of skills, further reducing employability. In Korea, the percentage of the labour force that has been unemployed for a year or longer is currently at 0.01%, the lowest rate in the OECD where the average long-term unemployment rate is 3.1%.
The wages and other monetary benefits that come with employment are an important aspect of job quality. In Korea, people earn 35 406 US dollars per year on average, more than the OECD average of 34 466 USD. Not everyone earns that amount however. Whereas the top 20% of the population earn 50 409 USD, the bottom 20% live on 17 458 USD per year.
Another essential factor of employment quality is job security. Employees working on temporary contracts are more vulnerable than workers with an open-ended contract. In Korea, around 24% of total employees have a contract of 6 months or less, higher than the average of 10% for 30 OECD countries. This figure suggests greater stabilisation of working contracts could be encouraged for Korean employees.
More ResourcesWell‑being in the workplace: Measuring job quality
Community – Korea expand
Humans are social creatures. The frequency of our contact with others and the quality of our personal relationships are thus crucial determinants of our well-being. Helping others can also make you happier. People who volunteer tend to be more satisfied with their lives than those who do not. Time spent volunteering also contributes to a healthy civil society. On average, people in Korea spend 1 minute per day in volunteering activities, less than the OECD average of 4 minutes per day. Around 45% reported having helped a stranger in the last month, slightly less than the OECD average of 48%.
A strong social network, or community, can provide emotional support during both good and bad times as well as provide access to jobs, services and other material opportunities. In Korea, 77% of people believe that they know someone they could rely on in a time of need, one of the lowest figures in the OECD where the average is 90%. There is a 5 percentage point difference between men and women, as 74% of men believe they have this kind of social support, compared with 79% of women. There is also a clear relationship between the availability of social support on the one hand, and people’s education level on the other. In Korea, 42% of people who have completed primary education report having someone to count on for help in times of need, compared to 82% for people who attained tertiary education.
A weak social network can result in limited economic opportunities, a lack of contact with others, and eventually, feelings of isolation. Socially isolated individuals face difficulties integrating into society as a contributing member and fulfilling personal aspirations.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Innovative solutions to keep elderly in their homes
Taking care of the elderly represents a daily challenge for communities and families. Ageing in place, close to family members, is a comforting option but can turn out expensive and demanding when need for care increases. It is thus important for public authorities to use housing policy to foster innovations in the design and equipment of homes more suited to ageing in place.
The Ubiquitous Health House or uHouse in Korea is a good example of an innovative system to facilitate multi-generational housing. The uHouse system uses Internet technology to monitor the patient’s daily activities and physical condition. This system allows families and the elderly to maintain privacy and independence while facilitating family care. This kind of temporary, modular home is designed to substitute for hospital service and can be particularly useful in rural areas and for immobile patients.
Korea is at an advanced stage of population ageing and is expected to experience one of the sharpest increases in ageing population and hence in potential care receivers. Developing this kind of private and family-based solution is thus necessary and in line with views expressed by the Korean population: more than 80% of people say they will live near or with their parents, once the latter become dependent and need regular assistance.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance OECD Insights: Human Capital
Education – Korea expand
A well-educated and well-trained population is essential for a country’s social and economic well-being. Education plays a key role in providing individuals with the knowledge, skills and competences needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy. Most concretely, having a good education greatly improves the likelihood of finding a job and earning enough money. Across OECD countries, 83% of people with university-level degrees have a job, compared with just below 56% for those with only a secondary school diploma. Lifetime earnings also increase with each level of education.
Following a decline in manual labour over previous decades, employers now favour a more educated labour force. High-school graduation rates therefore provide a good indication of whether a country is preparing its students to meet the minimum requirements of the job market. In Korea, 80% of adults aged 25-64 have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, higher than the OECD average of 74%. This is truer of men than women, as 85% of men have successfully completed high-school compared with 76% of women. This 9 percentage point difference is higher than the OECD average of 2 percentage points and suggests women’s participation in secondary education could be strengthened. Among younger people – a better indicator of Korea’s future – 98% of 25-34 year-olds have earned the equivalent of a high-school degree, much higher than the OECD average of 82%.
Koreans can expect to go through 17.7 years of education between the ages of 5 and 39, more than the OECD average of 16.5 years. This high level of education expectancy echoes Korea’s good performance in the educational attainment of its 25-34 year-old population.
But graduation rates, while important, speak little to the quality of education received. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reviews the extent to which students have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies. In 2009, PISA focused on examining students’ reading ability, skills in maths and level in sciences, as research shows that these skills are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than the number of years spent in school.
Korea is a top-performing OECD country in reading literacy, maths and sciences with the average student scoring 541. This score is higher than the OECD average of 497, making Korea one of the strongest OECD countries in students’ skills. On average in Korea, girls outperformed boys by 11 points, slightly more than the average OECD gap of 9 points, with an overall score of 547 points compared with 536 points for boys.
The best-performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all students. In Korea, the average difference in results, between the 20% with the highest socio-economic background and the 20% with the lowest socio-economic background, is 87 points, lower than the OECD average of 99 points. This suggests the school system in Korea provides relatively equal access to high-quality education.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Environment – Korea expand
The quality of our local living environment has a direct impact on our health. Outdoor air pollution is one important environmental issue that directly affects the quality of peoples’ lives. Despite national and international interventions and decreases in major pollutant emissions, the health impacts of urban air pollution continue to worsen, with air pollution set to become the top environmental cause of premature mortality globally by 2050. Air pollution in urban centres, often caused by transport and the use of small-scale burning of wood or coal, is linked to a range of health problems, from minor eye irritation to upper respiratory symptoms in the short-term and chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, cardiovascular diseases and lung cancer in the long-term. Children and the elderly may be particularly vulnerable.
PM10 – tiny particulate matter small enough to be inhaled into the deepest part of the lung – is monitored in OECD countries because it can harm human health and reduce life expectancy. In Korea, PM10 levels are 32.5 micrograms per cubic meter, much higher than the OECD average of 20.9 micrograms per cubic meter and the annual guideline limit of 20 micrograms per cubic meter set by the World Health Organization.
Access to clean water is fundamental to human well-being. Despite significant progress in OECD countries in reducing water pollution, improvements in freshwater quality are not always easy to discern. In Korea, 78% of people say they are satisfied with water quality. This figure is lower than the OECD average of 84% and suggests Korea still faces difficulties in providing good quality water to its inhabitants.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance OECD Environmental Outlook to 2030
Governance – Korea expand
A cohesive society is one where citizens have a high degree of confidence in their governmental institutions and public administration. In Korea, only 41% of people say they trust their political institutions, one of the lowest rates in the OECD area, where the average is 56%. High voter turnout is another measure of public trust in government and of citizens’ participation in the political process. In the most recent elections for which data is available, voter turnout in Korea was 76% of those registered. This figure is higher than the OECD average of 72%.
Even if the right to vote is universal in all OECD countries, not everyone exercises this right. There is little difference in the voting rates of men and women in most OECD countries. This is the case in Korea, where the voter turnout of men and women is similar, at respectively 78% and 74%. While on average there are few differences between men and women concerning participation in elections, income can have a strong influence on voter turnout. In Korea, voter turnout for the top 20% of the population is estimated at close to 100%, whereas the participation rate of the bottom 20% is an estimated 71%. This 29 percentage point difference is much higher than the OECD average difference of 12 percentage points, and points to shortcomings in the political mobilisation of those of lower socio-economic status.
Ensuring that government decision making is not compromised by conflicts of interest is key to maintaining trust in government. Transparency is therefore essential to hold government to account and to maintain confidence in public institutions.
Freedom of information laws (FOI) allow the possibility for individuals to access undisclosed information. For such policies to be successful, the public should have a clear understanding of their rights under the law, should be able to file requests with ease and should be protected against any possible retaliation. People in Korea can file a request for information either in writing, online, by telephone or in person – thus greatly facilitating the FOI process. However, there are no provisions for anonymity or protection from retaliation.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Health – Korea expand
Most OECD countries have enjoyed large gains in life expectancy over the past decades, thanks to improvements in living conditions, public health interventions and progress in medical care. Among OECD countries, Korea registered the greatest gain in life expectancy between 1960 and 2008, with an overall increase in longevity of 28 years, rapidly closing the gap with the average across OECD countries. In 1960, life expectancy in Korea was 16 years below the OECD average. It is now at 81 years, one year above the OECD average of 80 years. Life expectancy for women is 85 years, compared with 78 for men, a slightly larger difference than the average OECD gender gap of six years with a life expectancy of 83 years for women and 77 for men.
Higher life expectancy is generally associated with higher healthcare spending per person, although many other factors have an impact on life expectancy (such as living standards, lifestyles, education and environmental factors). Total health spending accounts for 7.1% of GDP in Korea, more than two percentage points below the OECD average of 9.5%. Korea also ranks below the OECD average in terms of total health spending per person, at 2035 USD in 2010, compared with an OECD average of 3268 USD. Between 2000 and 2010, total health spending in Koreaincreased in real terms by 9.0% per year on average, nearly twice the 4.7% OECD average.
Throughout the OECD, tobacco consumption and excessive weight gain remain two important risk factors for many chronic diseases. In Korea, 22.9% of adults report smoking every day, compared with an OECD average of 21.1%. In many OECD countries, large proportions of the population are overweight or obese. However, at just 4.1% of the general population, Korea has one of the lowest obesity rates in the OECD, where the average is 17.8%. Obesity’s growing prevalence foreshadows increases in the occurrence of health problems (such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and asthma), and higher health care costs in the future.
When asked, “How is your health in general?” 37% of people in Korea reported to be in good health, much lower than the OECD average of 69% and one of the lowest scores across the OECD. Despite the subjective nature of this question, answers have been found to be a good predictor of people’s future health care use. Gender, age and social status may affect answers to this question. On average in OECD countries, men are more likely to report good health than women, with an average of 71% for men and 66% for women. In Korea, the average is 40% for men and 34% for women. Not surprisingly, older people report poorer health, as do those who are unemployed, or who have less education or income. About 44% of the top 20% of the adult population in Korea rate their health as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, compared to about 31% for the bottom 20%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Life Satisfaction – Korea expand
Happiness or subjective well-being can be measured in terms of life satisfaction, the presence of positive experiences and feelings, and the absence of negative experiences and feelings. Such measures, while subjective, are a useful complement to objective data to compare the quality of life across countries.
Life satisfaction measures how people evaluate their life as a whole rather than their current feelings. It captures a reflective assessment of which life circumstances and conditions are important for subjective well-being. When asked to rate their general satisfaction with life on a scale from 0 to 10, Koreans gave it a 6.0 grade, lower than the OECD average of 6.6.
There is little difference in life satisfaction levels between men and women across OECD countries. In Korea, however, women report being happier than men, rating their life satisfaction at 6.2 compared with 5.8 for men. Education levels also strongly influence subjective well-being. Whereas people who have only completed primary education in Korea have a life satisfaction level of 4.6, this score reaches 6.5 for people with tertiary education.
Happiness, or subjective well-being, is also measured by the presence of positive experiences and feelings, and/or the absence of negative experiences and feelings. In Korea 83% of people reported having more positive experiences in an average day (feelings of rest, pride in accomplishment, enjoyment, etc) than negative ones (pain, worry, sadness, boredom, etc). This figure is higher than the OECD average of 80%.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Safety – Korea expand
Personal security is a core element for the well-being of individuals, and largely reflects the risks of people being physically assaulted or falling victim to other types of crime. Across the OECD, assault rates have generally declined in the past five years. In Korea, almost 2.1% of people reported falling victim to assault over the previous 12 months, less than the OECD average of 4.0%. There is little difference between men and women in assault rates, at respectively 1.9% and 2.2%.
The homicide rate (the number of murders per 100,000 inhabitants) is a more reliable measure of a country’s safety level because, unlike other crimes, murders are usually always reported to the police. According to the latest OECD data, Korea’s homicide rate is 2.6, slightly higher than the OECD average of 2.2.In Korea, the homicide rate is the nearly the same for men and for women, at respectively 2.5 and 2.6.
Fear of crime is another important indicator as it can constrain behaviour, restrict freedom and threaten the foundation of communities. Despite a general reduction in assault rates in the past five years, in many OECD countries feelings of security have declined. In Korea, 75% of people feel safe walking alone at night, higher than the OECD average of 67%. While men are at a greater risk of being victims of assaults and violent crimes, women report lower feelings of security than men. This has been explained by a greater fear of sexual attacks, the feeling they must also protect their children and their concern that they may be seen as partially responsible.
More ResourcesHow's Life? at a Glance
Work-Life Balance – Korea expand
Finding a suitable balance between work and life is a challenge for all workers, especially working parents. Some couples would like to have (more) children, but do not see how they could afford to stop working. Other parents are happy with the number of children in their family, but would like to work more. This is a challenge to governments because if parents cannot achieve their desired work/life balance, not only is their welfare lowered but so is development in the country.
People spend one-tenth to one-fifth of their time on unpaid work. The distribution of tasks within the family is still influenced by gender roles: men are more likely to spend more hours in paid work, while women spend longer on unpaid domestic work. Men in Korea, spend 45 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring, one of the lowest in the OECD where the average is 131 minutes. This is five times less than Korean women, who spend 227 minutes per day on average on domestic work.
Another important aspect of work-life balance is the amount of time a person spends at work. Evidence suggests that long work hours may impair personal health, jeopardize safety and increase stress. People in Korea work 2 090 hours a year, one of the highest rates in the OECD where the average is 1 776 hours.
The more people work, the less time they have to spend on other activities, such as time with others or leisure. The amount and quality of leisure time is important for people’s overall well-being, and can bring additional physical and mental health benefits. People in Korea devote 65% of their day, or 14.6 hours, to personal care (eating, sleeping, etc.) and leisure (socializing with friends and family, hobbies, games, computer and television use, etc.) – close to the OECD average of 14.9. In Korea, men devote approximately 15 hours per day to personal care and leisure and women 14 hours per day.
Better Policies for Better Lives
Too few babies and too little female employment
At 1.15 children per woman, Korea’s total fertility rate in 2009 was the lowest in the OECD. The decline in the fertility rate is mainly explained by married women having fewer children – families with three or more children have become rare in Korea – and a rise in the number of single women. Simply put, Korean women who are more educated, have jobs, and live in cities are likely to put off marriage.
In addition to the low fertility rate, the female employment rate was also low at 52.2% in 2009, well below the OECD average of 59.6%. Korea has the dual challenge of promoting female labour market participation and increasing fertility rates. Korea’s workplace practices (long working hours, socializing after work, little leave) make it difficult for parents to combine work and family life. After high private investments in education, many young Koreans first want to establish themselves in the regular employment before having children. However, once Korean women who have left the labour force to care for children, wish to return to work, they often end up in non-regular employment which is often low paid, part-time, and temporary. So if they can afford it, mothers will stay at home rather than return to a low-quality job. The result is too few babies and too little female employment, at a time when Korea needs more women in employment as its working age population is aging.
With female educational attainment levels now surpassing those of men, and with projected declines in the labour force, Korea’s economy needs to make a more efficient use of its investment in human capital to keep its economic engine going. However, with less than 1% of GDP allocated to family benefits, Korea is the OECD country with the lowest public expenditure on family benefits. Korea should further develop its paid childcare system to help working parents with the cost of young children. Additionally, Korea’s fathers should do more work at home to facilitate more women to be in work. In sum, there should be a greater role for flexible working-time arrangements, part-time employment opportunities, and performance-related pay to help Koreans better reconcile work and family life.