Like many people around the world, Lee Ye-rin has spent most of the last few months alone at home. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 32-year-old office worker now works remotely from her apartment in Seoul; she avoids going to the gym by training at home and streams films on her TV rather than going to the cinema. She reads e-books instead of going to the library, which has been closed during the pandemic anyway. “I have rarely eaten out since the outbreak,” Lee says. “Instead, I order a variety of takeaway meals and even ice-cream for dessert on a delivery app. When I am fed up with that, I order ingredients from the grocery store and cook at home.”
This isolated way of life has become the ‘new normal’ for many since lockdowns and shelter-in-place orders were introduced. But for South Koreans, it’s been on its way since even before Covid-19 hit. In fact, there’s even a word for it.
‘Untact’ – a combination of the prefix ‘un’ and the word ‘contact’ – has been floating around in marketing circles since 2017. It describes doing things without direct contact with others, such as using self-service kiosks, shopping online or making contactless payments. Some believe this is a natural progression in a modern society like South Korea, which combines robotic baristas, virtual make-up studios and digital financial transactions with an ageing population and a shrinking labour force.
Since the Covid-19 outbreak, ‘untact’ has moved from being a buzzword to becoming a central government policy. President Moon Jae-in’s recently announced “New Deal” economic plan includes a pledge to “promote untact industries” such as remote health and senior care, virtual offices and e-commerce support for small businesses.
A recent local survey by job search engine Saramin showed that 71.6% of South Korean adults felt their ‘untact’ economic activities had increased as a direct result of the pandemic. Yet in what is considered to be one of the most technologically advanced countries, the rapid rise of a minimal-contact society has left a swathe of elderly people behind.
Mastering connected life
While South Korea has impressive high-speed internet infrastructure with an internet penetration rate of nearly 96%, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the National Information Society Agency (NIA) only 29.2% of people in their 60s and older said they could install and use mobile applications and only 22.7% said they used e-commerce. In fact, research from the University of Greenwich found that the most frequently used functions used by over-60s in South Korea were making phone calls and checking the time. Compare that to Korea’s 30-39-year-olds whose level of internet usage is at 100%, with those between 10 and 29 years of age at 99.9%.