About 10 years ago, when I was pastoring in the United States, I was invited to speak at a college student rally in Korea. After returning home, I received a question via email from a student who attended the event: “Have you heard of the ‘3-po generation’? What does the gospel mean for us living in such a generation?”
As someone who hadn’t been living in Korea for a while, I wasn’t familiar with the term. Essentially, this group (also known as the Sampo generation) was giving up on three things: dating, marriage, and having kids. Because of educational costs, rising inflation, and a difficult job market, young people in Korea were abandoning any plans for marriage and childbearing.
Because of educational costs, rising inflation, and a difficult job market, young people in Korea were abandoning any plans for marriage and childbearing.
Over the years, I heard more stories. The 5-po generation also gave up on the dream of a career and home ownership. Subsequent generations have apparently given up on human relationships, hope, and ultimately life. In Korea, this is known as the N-po generation.
I believe these terms are based on excessive pessimism, but they express the seriousness of our society’s problems. They also reflect the frightening reality facing the younger generation, and not just in Korea—so we shouldn’t discount them.
From 2018–21, Korea had the lowest fertility rate in the world. And the trend is expected to continue for several years. Korea is now labeled as a “PINK” country, which stands for “poor income, no kids.” (Compare this with China’s “DINK” generation of double income, no kids.)
Analysts point out that the 1997 foreign exchange crisis was an inflection point where the low fertility rate began to appear prominently in Korea. The crisis led to large-scale corporate restructuring, significant unemployment, and a labor flexibility policy that motivates companies to eliminate regular employees in favor of temporary hires. Low wages are common among those who work for small companies or who are temporary workers, factors shown to contribute directly to low fertility rates.
Korea also holds the highest elderly poverty rate. Increasing suicide among the elderly intensifies people’s fears of falling into the low-income class. Meanwhile, the decline in marriage and fertility rates is accelerated by the high cost of living expenses, housing, and private education along with the costs associated with the shortened career of women who bear children.
This brings me back to the question I received 10 years ago. How do we apply the principles of the gospel to this reality? What can the church say to the younger generation living in these pessimistic times? Can the gospel really be good news for them?
We should begin by acknowledging the gospel isn’t good news in the sense of guaranteeing success, prosperity, and health in this world. However, the gospel is good news in that it promises salvation and eternal life. The gospel also influences every area of our current, earthly life.
Early Christians lived with poverty and persecution, but through the hope of the gospel they had an overflowing joy. They were able to share abundantly even during extreme poverty (2 Cor. 8:1–5). And we’ve even seen this in Korea’s history. In the early 20th century, during the desperate situation of losing national sovereignty to Japanese imperialism, Korean church fathers sacrificially sent Lee Ki-Poong as a missionary to Jeju Island and three others to Shandong, China.
This is evidence that the church can overcome despair with the joy of heaven. Like those listed in Hebrews 11, we can have the power to live as foreigners and strangers on earth because we’re looking to a city with a foundation that God planned and built (Heb. 11:10, 13). The gospel is the power that makes believers content in all circumstances (Phil. 4:11–12).
The church can overcome despair with the joy of heaven.
The N-po generation doesn’t need to give up on life; but they do need to surrender their expectations for a certain standard of life. By the power of the gospel, Christian young people can show what this looks like. And I know it’s hard. As I write, I think of my daughter. She’s been married a little over a year, works in Seoul, and lives with her husband, who is a seminary student, in a rented house of 400 square feet. When my daughter gives birth to their first child, she will immediately have many practical difficulties. But these difficulties don’t negate the purposes of God.
Embrace God’s Plan
Fifty years ago, Koreans were worried about a population explosion. The government stepped in with a plan to promote birth control and limit families to two children. Today, the Korean government is fearful of population decline and are trying to promote fertility. But God’s plans haven’t changed since the beginning. He created the heavens and the earth and commands us, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28).
For Christians, the decision to pursue childbearing isn’t ultimately an economic decision; it’s a theological one. We believe God’s purpose in the beginning is still valid, and we desire to see the world filled with those who worship him.
For Christians, the decision to pursue childbearing isn’t ultimately an economic decision; it’s a theological one.
In many places today, younger generations face difficult living conditions. Sadly, many are dealing with deep hopelessness. But Christians aren’t called to judge the legitimacy of God’s purposes based on our personal situation. Whether in the age of Korea’s birth control policy or today during the fears of ultra-low fertility, God’s command is unchanged.
My desire is that young Christians won’t give up on dating, marriage, and childbirth. You may have to concede your plans for higher education, a high-paying job, or buying a home and even your expectations for your health care, hobbies, and personal appearance. However, Christians must never give up on human relationships, hope, and life.