Unraveling the Silent Crisis: The Extreme Social Withdrawal of Young People in South Korea | Eye On Asia

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Unraveling the Silent Crisis: The Extreme Social Withdrawal of Young People in South KoreaImage sourced from Freepik

Introversion is now socially accepted and individualism has led to a rise in the single-household generation. However, for South Korean youth it seems they have taken a step further, raising concerns about the state of the youths turning into a social issue. 

Social isolation has been studied by academics for years, primarily focusing on the elderly. However, the emerging issue of South Korean "reclusive youths," as dubbed by the government, began to gain attention even before the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this social isolation among young people and negatively impacted their mental health as social distancing measures were implemented. In 2022, 20% of citizens reported experiencing loneliness, highlighting the profound impact of social distancing measures.

According to a 2019 study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) an estimated 3% of South Koreans between the ages of 19 and 34 suffer from isolation. The study also defines it as having no meaningful interaction outside their family and work as well as no one to seek help from when needed. The group also includes people in reclusion an extreme form of isolation, who shut themselves in their home or their rooms for years. 

Based on a survey conducted in 2023 by the Ministry of Health and Welfare in South Korea, which included over 20,000 persons between the ages of 19 and 39, the government of South Korea estimates that 540,000 young people, or 5% of the country's 11 million young adults, are suffering from isolation or reclusion.

It concluded that 12,000 respondents, including 504 who reported that they don't even leave their room, were in current danger of isolation with the respondents' level of life satisfaction and mental health being significantly lower than their peers. 

Nearly 60% of respondents self-reported poor physical and mental health, and three out of four mentioned having suicidal thoughts, compared to 2.3% of the general youth population in the country. Additionally, 25% stated that their isolation or retreat lasted between one and three years, while 6.1% reported it lasted longer than ten years. Over 80% expressed a desire to escape their circumstances.

According to a 2022 study conducted in Korea by Hoseo University youth culture and counseling professor Hyewon Kim, reclusive youths frequently exhibit personality traits like introversion, low self-esteem, low resilience, and perfectionism. The majority are highly educated (64%), economically middle class or above (64%), and first-born (60%) or have first-born parents (74%). 

The study also identified that a big factor for the reclusion of South Korean youths is the Confucian culture that places excessive expectations on social roles and responsibilities of individuals (especially for the first-born child) and fosters intense competitive pressure related to education and career. 

This is reflected early on in the number of hours that young Koreans devote to their studies often reaching 12 to 16 hours per day, at school or at a special after-school academy called a "hagwon", to live up to their parents' expectations of them putting immense pressure on their shoulders.

Given the country's reputation for cutthroat competition and pressure to conform, another contributing factor is that many have also experienced a sense of relative deprivation compared to those born with “a gold spoon,” as societal structures support the unequal distribution of social, intellectual, and financial resources.

This can be supported by the further analysis of the study from KIHASA as it showed that the top two reasons were job-related difficulties and personal relations issues. Many young Koreans reported experiencing repeated disappointments in their transition to adulthood, feeling that their existence in society was denied.

A Global Youth Reclusion

This phenomenon and cultural pressure have already been experienced by South Korea's neighbors; ten years ago, Japan named their young hermits "hikikomori," which translates to "withdrawn to oneself." 

However, the youth of South Korea is noted to be more like China's "tang ping," which means "lying flat," referring to an overwhelming group of young people who gave up on their dreams themselves and wielded the buzzword as a form of passive resistance as they opted out of the rat race after being burned-out or jobless. By March 2023about 20% of those aged 16-24 were out of work according to Beijing's quarterly report compared to 7.2% of South Korea over the same period.

In this regard, the case of South Korea's youth could be a global phenomenon that is yet to be recognized as studies have reported the same case of extreme social withdrawal in the USA, Canada, and Europe. However, it should be considered that an attribute to the problem is social and cultural conditions specific to South Korea and its neighboring regions. 

A Silence That Calls For A Change

This isolation calls for early intervention as reclusive youths are more likely to experience loneliness and are more vulnerable to suicide with an attempt risk ranging from 4 to 17 times higher in their lifetime. In 2020, the suicide mortality rate in South Korea was the highest among OECD countries, with the rates particularly higher among young people. Between 2019 and 2020, the suicide rate among teenagers increased by 9.4%, and for people in their 20s, it jumped by 12.8%.

Realizing the severity of this situation and recognizing the impacts of social isolation not only hurt individuals' mental health and physical health but also the country's future. Many institutions and nonprofits have jumped in and started to help young people get started or rebuild their lives again by setting up programs that allow them to connect once again to society and get that sense of belongingness. 

Despite these efforts, the cultural and institutional challenges remain, hindering progress to provide a wide aid to the reclusive youth. As efforts spread awareness, many Koreans still question whether it is appropriate for the government and institutions to support them. The general perception from society is not favorable as many still do not understand why the reclusive youths should be helped and view them as only hanging out at home instead of working hard. This invalidating perception reinforces the self-loathing and self-blaming that many of these youths have making them less likely to come out of their seclusion to get the support they need despite that many have a strong desire and willingness to change. Nonetheless, the reclusive youths are highly motivated and open to change. What they need help to escape withdrawal are family attention, patience, a sense of belief in themselves, experiencing small successes, counseling, and community. 

If not addressed, the possible effect of this social issue could have a long-term impact on South Korea, similar to Japan's 8050 problem, where 80-year-old parents are taking care of their long-reclusive children who are already in their 50s. Furthermore, the mental health implications are significant. A 2022 survey of over 5,000 reclusive youths in the city of Seoul revealed that 8 out of 10 are experiencing some degree of depression, with 18.5% taking psychiatric medications. The associated medical costs and lost opportunities can burden not only these young people but the entire nation. 

This could incur social welfare costs for the rest of society, especially as they age and lose family support as these young people are unlikely to get married and have children, bringing South Korea's low birth rate even further down and consequently the country's productivity. It's estimated that in 2023 the annual cost of lost economic output, welfare services, and health-related expenses of isolated youth can exceed 5.6 billion USD. A social problem that can keep going for the next decades even lasting until 50 years.

The government has started to offer a monthly living allowance worth 490 USD or 650,000 KRW per month to qualified reclusive youths in order to encourage them. A new measure passed in April 2024 aims to help these individuals recover their daily lives and become active members of society once again. This initiative also targets the broader issues of a shrinking working-age population and low birth rates.

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