South Korea is great for teenagers but terrible for adults

In some ways, South Korea doesn’t seem like a great place to live. It has the world’s highest rate for suicide among developed countries, as well as for alcohol consumption. It’s one of the worst countries when it comes to promoting women in the workforce, and its notoriously high expectations of beauty mean that it has one of the world’s highest rates of plastic surgery.

Yet for young people, South Korea is one of the best places in the world to live, at least according to a new index (pdf) ranking 30 countries in terms of economic opportunity, education, safety and other factors. The East Asian country ranked third, after Australia and Sweden, and just above the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States:

youth index
“The Youth Wellbeing Index” by the International Youth Foundation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Hilton Worldwide. (CSIS)

South Korea ranked first in information and communications technology infrastructure for young people—no surprise, given that it’s one of the most digitally connected societies in the world. It ranked fourth in security and safety, and in education. The country also ranked high in youth economic opportunity and in citizen participation.

South Korean youth have their share of problems: suicide rates of those between 10 and 19 is the second highest among developed countries— about 6 suicides per 100,000 people. But their difficulties pale in comparison to what Korean adults seem to face. Among adults, the suicide rate is around 34 per 100,000 people, compared to a little over 20 per 100,000 people in Hungary, which has the second highest occurrence of suicides of OECD countries, and more than twice the amount in the US.

The disparity may have something to do with the intense energy and investment Korean families spend on their children. As per capita GDP in the country grew some 7% annually between 1960 and 1999, families poured that money into education and services for their children. Education accounted for almost 12% of household expenditures in 2012, and has even been one of the culprits for rising household debt in the country. (For the average US family, education accounts for about 2% of annual expenditures.)

Even so, all that education doesn’t necessarily equal happy teenagers. Only 60% of Korean students report being happy at school, the lowest percentage of any OECD country.

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