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S. Korea among unhappiest countries in OECD

World’s 10th-largest economy still has long work hours, high poverty rate for older adults, according to report


South Korea is one of the unhappiest countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, largely because of its long working hours and high poverty rate for senior citizens, state-run think tank the Korea Development Institute said Wednesday. 

The country’s happiness level between 2018 and 2020 on average stood at 5.85 points out of 10, placing Korea at No. 35 out of the OECD’s 37 members. Only Greece and Turkey were unhappier with 5.72 points and 4.95 points, respectively, according to a report released by the KDI’s economic information and education center that cited the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s Happiness Index.

Finland scored 7.84 points, maintaining its status as the world’s happiest country for three years in a row. It was followed by Denmark (7.62 points), Switzerland (7.57 points), Iceland (7.55 points), the Netherlands (7.46 points), Norway (7.39 points) and Sweden (7.36 points).

The UN body conducts annual surveys of major economies to measure happiness levels based on various factors, including gross domestic product -- the market value of all final goods and services produced in an economy during a certain period -- life expectancy and citizen engagement, in partnership with global research agencies such as the Gallup World Poll.

“Ironically, South Korea, which became the 10th-largest economy in the world last year, ranked in the group with the lowest quality of life among the OECD member countries,” the KDI said. 

Korea’s notoriously long work hours and the high proportion of older adults living in poverty may account for the nation’s low level of happiness, it explained. 

Employees here worked an average of 1,967 hours in 2019, 241 hours more than the OECD average, according to an OECD report on hours worked by 35 of its members. Only in Mexico did people work more hours, 2,137 on average, though Colombia and Turkey were excluded from the analysis. 

Meanwhile, the poverty rate for people aged 66 and over reached 43.4 percent in Korea in 2018, three times higher than the OECD average of 14.8 percent, the France-based organization said.

The fine dust issue may also have been a factor in Korea’s performance in the world happiness rankings, according to the KDI. 

The average level of PM10 -- fine airborne particles smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter -- was 27.4 micrograms per cubic meter as of 2018, the worst among the OECD member states. Finland, the country with the highest happiness level, posted 5.6 micrograms per cubic meter. 

By Choi Jae-hee (