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South Korea to start paying young people to leave the house

Known by the Japanese word ‘hikikomori’, South Korea faces a crisis of extreme isolation among young people. Could a fat cheque be enough to turn the tide?

The South Korean government is going to start offering extremely reclusive young people (aged between nine and 24) an allowance to encourage them to go outside. This will be a monthly payment of 650,000 won (roughly £400), which is a fairly hefty amount of pocket money, and comes alongside support in jobs, health and education. The policy will also pay for certain cosmetic surgeries; for instance, if someone has a scar that they “may feel ashamed of.”

The policy is intended to tackle a problem known in South Korea by the Japanese word ‘hikikomori’, which literally translates as ‘to pull back’ and means ‘social withdrawal’. We don’t have quite the same concept in Britain, although it’s something like a combination of agoraphobia and the acronym ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training.) Essentially, it means that you rarely – if ever – leave the house, for any reason. While ‘hikikomori‘ started as a phenomenon specific to Japan, it is beginning to emerge in different countries across the world,  a trend which has been exacerbated by the pandemic and the way that the internet has reduced the need for face-to-face communication.

According to the Korea Institute for Health and Affairs, this kind of extreme social isolation is experienced by 350,000 people in Korea aged between 19 and 39 – around three per cent of that age bracket. Often, the problem starts in adolescence or early childhood, and the people affected are from disadvantaged backgrounds. There are also links between ‘hikikomori’ and various mental illnesses and traumatic events. One young person, quoted in a case study published by the government, said, “When I was 15 years old, domestic violence made me depressed so much that I began to live in seclusion. A lethargic person who sleeps most of the time or has no choice but to eat when hungry and go back to sleep.” Others cited problems such as familial bankruptcy. 

So why is this such a problem? Young people in South Korea face the same challenges as their counterparts in developed economies across the globe, including a lack of housing, scarce job opportunities and stagnant wages. But South Korea also provides some more specific challenges. In a country which places a high premium on conventional success, young people have to deal with high expectations from their families and one of the most stressful, competitive education systems in the world, with little time for leisure activities. Correspondingly, South Korea has the single highest suicide rate of any developed economy. Faced with such intense pressure, it’s not surprising that so many young people want to drop out of society, in one way or another.

South Korea has a relatively high youth unemployment rate at 7.2 per cent (although not higher than Britain’s which is 9.5 per cent) and is currently facing a dramatic decline in birth rates - last year, it became the only country in the world to have a fertility rate below one, which means that women are having ‘0.78’ children on average. The government hopes the allowance will help to tackle these problems, by encouraging people back to school, university or work.