The Korea Herald


[AtoZ into Korean mind] Money paradox: Why money speaks louder than anything else

In era of prosperity, obsession with wealth only grows

By No Kyung-min

Published : June 30, 2024 - 12:51

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In South Korean society's contemporary lexicon, the neologism "financial treatment" posits that the mere act of monetary gain serves as a kind of therapy or cure for all manner of psychological and physical ailments.

The term, especially popular among Korea's younger workers, points to a deep-seated belief -- amid the country's mixed capitalist economy with its minimal social safety net -- in accumulating money as one's primary focus, rather than as a mere byproduct or unfortunate necessity of human activity.

"My monthly stipend, for instance, seems to have a mysterious healing power that alleviates stress,” shared Oh Min-jae, in his 20s. "With each passing year, I feel the ever-deeper grip of money on my life."

Having undergone a turbulent development process to emerge from poverty following the 1950-53 Korean War, the nation seems more obsessed with money than ever, and lags behind other major economies in embracing nonmaterialistic values.

The World Values Survey in 2018, a global study of values, reinforces this observation, finding that 45 percent of Korean nationals identified as "materialists," significantly higher than in Japan (21.6 percent), France (19.2 percent) and the US (14.4 percent).

This reality bewilders some Koreans too.

“Back in the day, we were penniless, yet that didn’t stop us from starting a family and having children,” said Lee Young-gi, 77. “It is ironic that Korea has become so much richer but people seem more desperate for money.”

Money-oriented jobs

A deeper look into the state of mind of those who speak of the benefits of “financial treatment” reveals individuals becoming increasingly beholden to their bank accounts and the growing disconnect between their jobs and personal fulfillment. In other words, income dictates career choices.

As per a Statistics Korea survey last year, the highest percentage of young Korean nationals aged between 13 to 19 -- 35.7 percent -- indicated their intention to chase careers for the paycheck. This finding marks a drastic turnaround from even a decade ago, when 38.1 percent prioritized careers based on their individual passions and talents.

"For many of us, myself included, passion isn't the driving force behind our careers," said Song Ji-yeon, a Seoul-based office worker in her 20s. “Honestly, high salaries are what motivate us. They're the means to an end, allowing us to pursue our true passions outside of work.”

Yet, this perspective of work as a means to monetary compensation is just one piece of a larger mosaic.

Lee Eun-hee, a professor of consumer science at Inha University, illuminated the growing dichotomy between "professional pursuits" and "personal fulfillment endeavors" in contemporary Korean society.

"In an era where lifelong careers are vanishing, for many, it seems money validates success and guarantees the achievement of their goals," she said.

In a survey released by Pew Research Center in November 2021, among 19,000 adults across 17 advanced economies surveyed about what gives their lives meaning, only about 6 percent of 1,006 Korean national adult respondents identified their careers as the primary source of meaning -- the lowest portion among all 17 surveyed nations.

In stark contrast, the Korean respondents prioritized financial stability above all else. The highest percentage of Korean respondents, at 19 percent, chose "material well-being" as the source of meaning in life.

Take Jung Min-su, a 30-something office worker, who dreams of becoming a “well-off baeksu,” or unemployed person. Jung clarifies that for him, the true essence of being such a "bum" lies in achieving financial independence, as "every aspect of life seems tethered to money.”

In a Gallup Korea survey released Wednesday, the medical profession topped the list of jobs favored by Korean nationals for the first time, with its popularity doubling over five years, from 8 percent in 2019 to 16 percent in 2024.

As of 2020, doctors in Korea earned an average annual salary of approximately 260 million won ($187,000), according to data from the Ministry of Health and Welfare. This figure was the highest among member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, where their average annual income stood at $108,482.

Consumer science professor Lee further elucidated the prevailing money-oriented mindset.

"Unlike in previous generations, contemporary Korean parents in their 40s open bank accounts for their children to provide early investment experience," Lee noted. "This trend highlights the increasing significance placed on wealth accumulation."

Money over relationships

Even in the realm of human interactions here, money can take precedence.

The Pew Research Center’s data showed that, unlike in 14 other countries where "family and children" ranked first as the source of a meaningful life, in Korea, family ties came third, behind material well-being and physical and mental health.

For Oh, money is the essential adhesive to maintaining relationships.

"Love for family is a given," he said, "but money smooths things over. It resolves most family conflicts." He added that he isn't surprised his parents prefer cash gifts for birthdays and holidays, as financial security, after all, opens doors to more options in life.

The specter of money looms even larger when selecting a life partner, the bedrock of family formation.

Hur, a graduate student in her 20s, pointed to a certain Korean phrase: “Marriage is reality.”

She illuminated the chasm between carefree dating and the economic demands of marriage, implying that love matches can hardly bloom without the fertile soil of financial stability.

"I cannot imagine tying the knot even with the person I love if he can't provide a certain level of financial security for the future -- who knows how long,” she said. "Financial standards help me narrow down potential partners, as love alone does not suffice."

Financial compatibility ranks among her top criteria when setting up a blind date, "given the expenses of buying a house and raising a child here," she says.

Korea is the most expensive country in which to raise a child to the age of 18, with total costs amounting to over 300 million won, approximately 7.8 times the nation’s gross domestic product per capita, according to a 2022 study by the YuWa Population Research Institute in China. China ranked second, with its average cost nearly 6.3 times its GDP per capita, followed closely by Italy at 6.28 times its GDP per capita.

"Sacrificing my own life for parenthood at such a high cost seems like a missed opportunity," Hur added.

This strong desire for money has also led many Korean nationals, particularly younger generations, to opt for leveraged investments -- borrowing money to make investments, and using the profits to repay the loan -- rather than focusing on merely saving or trying to increase earnings, as their parents did.

According to the Financial Supervisory Service, Koreans accumulated 476.9 trillion won in debt over the 12-month period from July 2022, with nearly 30 percent (134 trillion won) borrowed by individuals in their 20s and 30s, mainly for housing and stock investments.

Sociologist Cheong Soo-bok delves into what for him is a root cause of this phenomenon in his 2007 book, "Cultural Grammar of Koreans" (direct translation): a combination of the influence of Korean Confucianism and the majority of Koreans lacking a religion.

The book argues Korean Confucianism, with its emphasis on hierarchy, transformed over time into an ideology for maintaining power and order from the Joseon era (1392-1910) through the Japanese colonial occupation (1910-45) to the authoritarian regimes of the modern period.

With moral idealism focused on the present life and a lack of an afterlife, achieving success in the present life became paramount, according to Cheong. Koreans have come to define this success as a series of materialistic achievements, he argues in the book.

In a more practical approach, professor Lee sees the issue as intricately tied to the concentration of life in expensive Seoul, which seems to push the goalposts for financial security increasingly out of reach.

Hur agrees. Although she knows the financial burden would ease if she moved out of Seoul, she can’t do so because it is where her university and most large institutions and corporations are, meaning her career is tied to the city.

In the long term, the country needs to make life outside metropolitan areas more viable and attractive, where life isn’t so centered on money, she said.