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Glimpsing Our Future in 'Korea: The Impossible Country'

Universal higher education, few babies, and lots of old people.

October 4, 2018
 
 

Korea: The Impossible Country: South Korea's Amazing Rise from the Ashes: The Inside Story of an Economic, Political and Cultural Phenomenon by Daniel Tudor

First published in November of 2012, audiobook released in September of 2018.

Want to know our future? Visit South Korea.

Those of us who are lucky enough to have visited South Korea know this to be true. Until you can book your trip, a reasonable substitute is reading Daniel Tudor’s excellent Korea: The Impossible Country.

I’m a fan of the country biography. Concise books that take a critical if appreciative perspective on a country’s current political, social, and economic circumstances - contextualized by history and geography. The Impossible Country is a pretty example of this genre.

What the author does not do is try to connect the lessons of South Korea to his country of origin. In Daniel Tudor’s case, that would be Great Britain.  Tudor is a former Economist Korean correspondent and current Korean beer entrepreneur. The strength and the weakness of The Impossible Country is its narrow focus on Korea.

I tend to think South Korea has much to tell us about our future.

#1 - Universal Higher Education:

South Korea is the only country that I know where almost everyone goes to college. Higher education is both universally desired and attained. The competition for the top institutions is intense.  Many will go abroad.

The country graduates something like 300,000 a year. The problem is that there are only about 100,000 jobs for graduates that may reasonably lead to a career.  The result is that South Korean students will delay graduation, lingering on campus. 

When the US will reach South Korean college-going rates is an interesting question.  What do you think?

2 - Few Babies:

The total fertility rate in South Korea is just over 1.05. That is the lowest in the world.  Women need to have on average 2.1 children over their lifetime for the population to remain steady, net of immigration and migration.  (Think about it. Men can’t have babies.).

When I traveled around South Korea a few years ago, I was stunned by all the missing kids. You notice their absence.

What do I worry about most? I fear that we will end up in the same place as South Korea. Don’t believe me? Have you visited San Francisco lately?  Why should the US follow a fertility path different from every other wealthy country?

Modern day South Korea is not an argument that everyone should have kids. Instead, South Korea shows us what happens when having kids is too expensive.

Korean parents must spend tens of thousands of dollars, and often more, on tutoring and test prep services.  The Korean obsession with academic achievement has made the cost of having kids hard to manage.

In the US we are doing much of the same given the rising cost of college, combined with the expense of living in an area with quality schools.

When having kids becomes too expensive, people stop having kids.  Few babies in South Korea today, few babies in the U.S. tomorrow.

3 - Lots of Old People:

South Korea is the most rapidly aging country in the world. If current trends continue, almost 4-in-10 South Koreans will be 65 and older by 2050.  

Thanks to more immigrants and higher fertility levels, the US will not get as old as fast as South Korea. But we are still getting older. 

In the future, the whole country will look like Florida, with one-in-five American’s age 65 and older.  If our fertility levels drop (which I think they will), and we continue to be hostile to immigrants, then the US will get older faster.

The Impossible Country does an excellent job of describing what life is like where everyone goes to college, where fewer can afford to have kids, and where the future is old.

The book also offers a cogent analysis of how South Korea transitioned to one of the poorest countries on earth to one of the wealthiest and the impact of rapid economic development on culture and society.

The Impossible Country is a book that anyone interested in the past and present of Korea, and the future of the US, should read.

Recommendations for country biographies?

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