Why South Korea's young people are so lonely

woman sitting alone on a bus
woman sitting alone on a bus Getty Images / Wonsup Im / EyeEm
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The South Korean government is trying to encourage isolated young people to "re-enter society" by offering to pay them a monthly stipend. The number of young recluses in the country is of grave concern to South Korean leaders amid other issues plaguing the population.

Why is South Korea offering to pay 'reclusive lonely young people?'

South Korea's Ministry of Gender Equality and Family announced that it would give up to 650,000 Korean won (about $500) monthly to reclusive young people between the ages of 9 and 24 to support their "psychological and emotional stability and healthy growth," CNN recounts.

In a report, the ministry estimates that around 3.1 percent of Koreans aged 19 to 39 are "reclusive lonely young people," citing data from the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. "That makes up about 338,000 people across the country, with 40 percent beginning their isolation in adolescence, according to the ministry," CNN summarizes.  The group was defined as living in "limited space, in a state of being disconnected from the outside for more than a certain period of time, and have noticeable difficulty in living a normal life," per the ministry's report.

"Reclusive youths can have slower physical growth due to irregular living and unbalanced nutrition, and are likely to face mental difficulties such as depression due to loss of social roles and delayed adaptation," the ministry said.

The monthly allowance is a part of the larger Youth Welfare Support Act, CNN says, "which aims to support people extremely withdrawn from society, as well as youths without a guardian or school protection who are at risk of delinquency."

While the policy's primary purpose is to help disadvantaged youth, Bloomberg says, "It's also a way for the country to address its shrinking working-age population amid alarmingly low birthrates and tight immigration policies." South Korea is on track to become one of the nations with the largest share of people over 65, per Statistics Korea. The country also has a high rate of youth unemployment at 7.2 percent, Bloomberg adds, "and is trying to tackle a rapidly declining birthrate that further threatens productivity."

"This policy is fundamentally a welfare measure," Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University in Seoul, said to Bloomberg. "While it's good to try various approaches to boost working age population, it cannot be seen as a long-term solution to fix the population problem here."

What is leading South Korea's youth to isolation?

The reclusive teens being targeted "tend to shut themselves at home for months for prolonged periods of time, dodging school and work for months or even years," Insider says. Many came from financially disadvantaged families and started shutting themselves out from the world from a young age. Some young people start to self-isolate because of "personal trauma, bullying in school, academic stress, family conflict, or a lack of care from their guardians or parents," the family ministry said in a blog post Insider summarized. In one of the case studies provided by the ministry, an unnamed 17-year-old said that domestic violence led them to seclude themselves at the age of 15. The unidentified teen described themselves as a "lethargic person who sleeps most of the time" and only got up to eat.

The problem with reclusive youth in South Korea has been compared to a similar phenomenon in Japan, known as hikikomori. Japan coined the phrase as early as the 80s, and it refers to the nearly 1.5 million shut-in youths in the country, CNN explains. A survey found that the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the problem. Over a fifth of the people surveyed said that the pandemic played a significant role in their reclusive lifestyle. "Other common reasons cited were pregnancy, job loss, retirement, and having poor interpersonal relationships," CNN adds.

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