▲ Photo by Ryan McGinley. Provided by en.vogue.fr.
Flashback to 2011 when it seemed like everyone was overusing the cool word You Only Live Once (YOLO) in their daily conversations. This term first appeared in Canadian rapper Drake’s song “The Motto” and since then, a countless number of millennials have familiarized themselves with this hip and trendy acronym. YOLO is also often used to describe the currently trending lifestyle of millennials in Korea. Millennials are being called as the YOLO generation, the generation that does not sacrifice or delay present moment’s happiness.
YOLO refers to the lifestyle that focuses on present moment’s pleasures and satisfaction. The term and trend originally started in America, and recently it is influencing many different sectors of society in Korea. Recognizing this trend will be a step towards understanding the mindset of millennials, the generation of our time. So, what exactly is a YOLO life? What caused this trend to become so popular with the younger generation?
▲ Canadian rapper and singer Drake. Provided by The Independent.
The Birth of YOLO
Here’s a fun fact—before the term YOLO skyrocketed in popularity, Yolo was much more known as a public city in California. This is mentioned in “The Bastardization of YOLO,” an opinion article written in 2012 by Justin Cox, editor of Davis Patch and resident of Yolo county. It seems that many people, especially the younger generation, are not aware that Yolo is also a name of a county. The new acronym YOLO is much more recognizable among millennials.
Soon enough, after the word YOLO emerged from Drake’s song, the hashtag (#) trend became prevalent in social network services (SNS) such as Twitter or Instagram, playing a huge part in spreading this term all over the world. People who wanted to express their carpe diem attitude to life used the hashtag #YOLO. Photos of themselves enjoying extreme sports, traveling to faraway countries, or treating themselves to a nice meal were all tagged #YOLO. Living life to the fullest and focusing on the happiness of now were the whole concept.
Yet there were also negative usages of this term. YOLO became an excuse for actions that would otherwise have been associated with swaggering idiocy. For instance, “Drunk af going 120 drifting corners #F***It YOLO” were the last words of rapper Ervin McKinness, who died in 2012 after a car crash in less than an hour after that post was tweeted. Very soon, people were fed up with the overused term, and just like all those challenges that millennials seem to have enjoyed—the water bottle flip challenge, the mannequin challenge, the don’t judge me challenge—it started to decline in popularity. One of the main reasons is that many took the acronym to heart and did not take it seriously.
In the above-mentioned article, Cox also stated that YOLO is criticized for being “deficient of creativity.” Cox commented, “It is basically one big cliché, boiled down to an acronym that fits nicely into 140-character tweets that allow people to celebrate their questionable choices.” Celebrities such as Jack Black tweeted, “I am fairly certain that YOLO is carpe diem for stupid people.” There were also Grammar Nazis belittling the term and claiming that it technically should be You Live Only Once (YLOO).
Despite the mixed usages and responses, YOLO is still thought to be a positive thing in Korea. The term became widely known after its appearance in Youth Over Flowers (2016), a reality television program starring celebrities going on unexpected trips overseas. In one episode of the show, Korean actor Ryu Jun Yeol met a woman traveling alone in Africa and complimented her on her bravery. The woman replied, “YOLO, you only live once,” which triggered the nationwide use of YOLO.
▲ Photo of Ryu Jun Yeol. Provided by news.chosun.com
Millennials Only Live Once
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what a YOLO lifestyle is, as the definition is broad, but it is often associated with spending time and money on hobbies and interests instead of saving for the future or retirement. People travel overseas instead of opening a savings account. People also pay the price of a meal to drink specialty coffee, stand in line for more than an hour for gourmet food, and spend a few months’ worth of rent on buying sports gear or a musical instrument. They are all about the now, the joy of being in the moment, focusing everything on immediate pleasure or satisfaction.
Traveling is one crucial component of a YOLO lifestyle. What can be a more fitting embodiment of living in the moment than traveling to another region and experiencing a whole new environment? According to Seoul Daily, the number of Korean citizens traveling overseas exceeded 20 million in 2016. The increase in travel is driven mostly by millennials. Interpark Tour, a major travel agency in Korea, reported that people in their 30s traveled the most—accounting for 38 percent of all travelers—in 2016, followed by people in their 20s—just under33 percent. An official from Interpark Tour commented, “This result indicates that millennials are the ones who are leading the YOLO life.”
▲ Infographic explaining the millennials. Provided by whymillennialsmatter.com
Millennials are the children of baby boomers, born in the 1980s to early 2000s. They are the 2030 generation and digital natives who are comfortable using the Internet and mobile devices. Data from Statistics Korea (KOSTAT) suggest that millennials account for more than 40 percent of the total population and that 66 percent of them are economically active. They are accustomed to low economic growth and have immense anxiety for the future, leading to self- and present-oriented consumption rather than investing in an unforeseeable future, according to Chosun Pub.
Yoon Jie Min, a tourism communicator who quit her job at Seoul City Hall and traveled through 19 different countries in 260 days to learn about real tourism, shared her insight on the YOLO trend. She has been described as a YOLO girl in other magazines and is leading a life that does not leave regrets behind. Yoon commented, “I think the true value of YOLO does not lie in living in the moment and not preparing for the future. YOLO is rather a statement of deep consideration of how to spend one’s life well, as we only have one chance.” Yoon also expressed her thoughts on the reason why YOLO is trending. “It is probably because in the past, we were too afraid of what other people might think of us. Nowadays, I think more and more people are focusing on their own lifestyles,” she elaborated.
▲ Photo of Yoon Jie Min. Provided by Yoon.
Like Yoon, the 2030 generation responds positively to the YOLO trend. Saramin, an employment portal in Korea conducted a survey on YOLO life with 830 men and women in their 20s and 30s. Around 84 percent of the respondents exhibited a favorable reaction to this lifestyle and 44.5 percent considered their own lifestyles to be characteristic of YOLO. As reasons for preferring a YOLO lifestyle, the majority of the respondents chose “Because I will not regret it in the future”—60.7 percent—and “Because I can live a self-directed life”—55.4 percent.
The pursuit of current happiness is not a groundbreaking concept. Talmud stresses the importance of doing what you want to do now and Buddhism also preaches the present and the present moment’s happiness. Buddha taught his students that, “Life only exists in this moment, the brief present. The past is already gone and the future has not arrived. What really exists is the present.” However, unlike these philosophies, the YOLO lifestyle is heavily influencing the economy of the nation. It has become an important consumer trend that is shaping media, marketing strategies, and products.
YOLO, the Key to Profit
In Trend Korea 2017 (2016), the Seoul National University (SNU) Consumer Trend Research Institute selected ten keywords, including B+ Premium, Pick-me Generation, Calm-Tech, Era of Aloners, and User Experience, to encapsulate the anticipated consumer trends of 2017. Of these keywords, YOLO was the one that the report focused on the most. This prediction is not missing the mark so far.
For example, ShinhanCard recently launched the credit card Shinhan Card YOLO i. This card reflects the consumer trends of the 2030 generation, offering larger discounts on products and services that the YOLO generation uses most frequently. The users of this card can receive benefits from cinemas and social commerce platforms. The company also offers Shinhan Card YOLO Triplus, which targets members of the younger generation who travel often on a limited budget. These examples illustrate how the YOLO generation and their lifestyles are becoming too influential to ignore, even for major credit card companies.
▲ Photo of Shinhan Card YOLO i. Provided by focus.kr.
The Centum City branch of Lotte Department Store extensively renewed their living department this March to satisfy the needs of the YOLO generation. This generation does not hesitate in spending money on their health and well-being, even if they live alone. To keep pace with the healthy lifestyle the YOLO generation pursues, the department included health care devices such as massage machines and high-quality latex pillows. Gukje News reported Lotte Department household appliances chief buyer Lee Sang Min saying, “The attitude of sacrificing the present for the future is turning into an attitude to life that values the present moment, and invests in one’s individual tastes.” Lee also added, “There will be a continuous renewal of stores and brands reflecting the change in customers’ tastes.”
The hospitality industry is also on the move. Various hotels offer special programs designed for YOLO exponents who do not hesitate to travel alone or those who want a staycation, a newly coined term for a holiday at a nearby resort or urban hotel for relaxation instead of traveling far away. The Shilla Ulsan Hotel has a package for one person that includes the hotel buffet, a business travel kit, and a one-night stay. The Westin Chosun Hotel has introduced an “I Stay Alone” promotion that provides early check-in, a luxury perfume sample kit and a discounted one-night stay.
Professor Lee Eun Hee (Inha University, Department of Consumer Science) explained, “The YOLO trend is an economically influential trend in 2017. There will be numerous products and services aimed at the YOLO generation, the generation that does not sacrifice the present.” However, Lee also expressed her concern, “The younger generation does not have enough money. A YOLO life is an extension of a lifestyle that consumes small luxuries. I hope that the industry can provide the YOLO generation with cost-effective and convenient products.”
Daiso, a Japanese dollar store that sells lifestyle products, is a good example that illustrates Lee’s point. It offers various items that can be purchased for only 1,000 to 2,000 won. As single households are increasing in number and college students often live alone in a small studio apartment, Daiso’s practical and affordable products are helpful for them. According to Betanews, marketing manager of Daiso said, “As YOLO lifestyle is becoming more prevalent, Daiso will continue to provide a diverse range of practical items at a low cost.”
▲ Posters for Kung Fu Panda (2008), Eat Pray Love (2010), and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013). Provided by movie.naver.com, impwards.com, joblo.com
YOLO in the Media
“Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the present”—this quote,originally penned by writer Bil Keane, is featured in the film Kung Fu Panda (2008). While older generations are keener to save money on investments and material possessions, millennials spend their money on experiences. In fact, one of the most noticeable changes for the YOLO generation was the rise of travel portrayed in movies. Films such as Eat, Pray, Love (2010) and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) show that embarking on a journey of self-discovery and going on a global expedition is more special than material possessions.
Even though these movies tend to have the common theme of travelling to foreign places and heading out on adventures, members of the audience can appreciate different aspects of these films. Eat, Pray, Love features a woman who has a husband, a house, and a successful career. Yet, like many people, she finds herself confused and lost, thus leading her to embark on a journey around the world to find herself.Similarly, the titular character of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty has not done anything noteworthy or mentionable until he gets an opportunity to find Sean O’Connell, upon which he travels to different parts of the world in order to find him.
▲ Poster of Youth Over Flowers. Provided by rpm9.com.
Likewise, more Korean shows about youth, one night food trips, and weekend trips are starting to gain popularity. There are three main shows that are representative of the YOLO generation as follows: tvN’s Youth over Flowers, a real variety television program featuring overseas backpackers; One Night Food Trip, in which the cast travels to foreign countries and eats local foods for two days; and the reality show YOLO Trip, which follows members of the Korean idol girl group DIA on a free music tour that also includes members freely going sightseeing, eating, and shopping.
According to Professor Lee Hun Yul (Department of Media and Communications), the reason why the media has been showing the YOLO trend is due to the rise of cable channels and new values of the young generation, the millennials. He explained, “Nowadays, cable channels such as JTBC, Mnet, and tvN are starting to gain popularity especially towards the younger audience in South Korea.” He also mentioned, “Just three or four years ago, it was awkward for people to do things by themselves. However, now it seems that for younger people, doing things alone is completely normal.”
▲ Poster of One Night Food Trip. Provided by post.naver.com
Furthermore, the advertisement industry, an industry that must keep up to date with what is trending in the world, is also trying to keep track of the YOLO influence. However, television advertisements these days are not as eye-catching for the younger generation because they do not have the income or wealth to make large one-off purchases. Even though there have been numerous advertisements that sell the present moment’s happiness and the number of these advertisements has grown, the consumption of the younger generation in Korea is starting to decline, while internet advertising is increasing its influence.
As one can see, with the constant exposure of YOLO in the media, people have a strong chance of being inadvertently affected by the YOLO lifestyle. “The YOLO trend targets younger viewers, especially through cable channels, because it is the media’s job to pick up on social trends of people and to entertain them,” says Professor Lee. He further commented, “However, the media should also be able to maintain a balance and not just show amusing contents; it needs to broadcast profound and meaningful ones as well.”
▲ Photo of Professor Sung Young Shin. Photographed by Park Tae In.
Despite the backlash against the YOLO trend and the generation that upholds it, the social consequences are affecting our daily lives quite meaningfully. After all, the term carpe diem has been around since 23 B.C. and history has urged us to seize the moment ever since. For instance, Robert Herrick, an English lyric poet from the 17th century, exclaimed, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” and even the Bible says, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (Isaiah 22:13). In some ways, the media has been over-exaggerating certain headlines, focusing on non-representative reckless behavior, while the term itself has a positive message.
As more millennials now believe that marriage is not obligatory, but rather optional, people can see that the YOLO lifestyle is affecting people socially. According to E News Today, one in five unmarried men and women stated in a survey that they are enjoying the life of YOLO. Furthermore, as individualism is trending among South Korea, the marriage information company Duo reported the results of a survey about YOLO life, finding that 61.1 percent of the respondents knew the term YOLO and that 36.9 percent were enjoying YOLO life.
Indeed, marriage is a crucial issue in YOLO life. Though marriage is becoming less and less obligatory in our society, the head of the public relations (PR) department at Duo, Kim Seung-Ho, said, “YOLO does not mean a life that one enjoys alone.” He continued explaining that in a broader sense, YOLO is the process of working with a loved one for a happy life. To further elaborate on this trend, Justin Cox said, “The YOLO attitude has changed considerably as more millennials are more inclined to invest in their day-to-day satisfaction rather than setting aside money.”
Why YOLO? Why Now?
A trend does not make an appearance out of the blue. Professor Sung Young Shin (Psychology) explained the prominence of YOLO in terms of the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment. In this psychological experiment, children of ages four to six were offered to choose between a small reward provided immediately and two small rewards after some amount of time. After several years, researchers tracked down the children and found that the subjects who delayed their rewards achieved better life outcomes in indexes such as Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) scores, educational attainment, and body mass index (BMI).
Delaying immediate gratification and preparing for the future require self-control and reason. Sung commented, “People are instinctively inclined to pursue the present moment’s desire. However, when one gives up instant satisfaction and waits, the possibility of success goes up.” According to Sung, there are two main reasons why people do not invest in future and rather pursue present moment’s happiness. One is that some individuals inherently lack self-control. This was the main reason why many children from the marshmallow experiment did not or could not wait for a delayed but larger reward.
Another reason is that individuals are not convinced that, if they wait, the reward will be any better. Even if they sacrifice their happiness now, the marshmallow may not in fact be any larger. Sung elaborated, “Millennials are living in the era of uncertainty. Coupled with the younger generation’s lack of self-confidence, the uncertain future may be a significant reason why YOLO lifestyle is so prevalent nowadays.” Society is becoming increasingly unreliable. The future is more and more unpredictable due to rapid technological development, high unemployment rates, and economic downturns. People can take full responsibility for small things in the present, things that are guaranteed to make them happy.
Where is YOLO Heading?
As external factors conspire to make a better life in the future less likely for millennials, they have decided to focus on what they can do right now. They have found personal happiness through a different medium, a different outlet. One of the problems is that the current YOLO trend is concentrated on instant sensory satisfaction. Sung expressed her worry that, “The YOLO generation is leaning too much on sensory pleasures. I hope that millennials also invest in intellectual or spiritual development too.”
In addition, as YOLO life is a lifestyle that focuses on me and now, the consideration of society and others may be neglected. An individual’s resources are limited, so an imbalance in the distribution of resources will be detrimental for society in the long run. Sung remarked, “I believe that the increase of single households is one of the reasons for this individualism. Millennials are the me generation.” Lee also shared Sung’s concerns that, “Balancing one’s resources is important. I hope that the younger generation do not block out everything and everyone other than themselves.”
YOLO is an inevitable wave, triggered by an uncertain and unreliable social environment. Living for oneself is a new paradigm that has appeared quite recently. The older generation believed in sacrificing the present and preparing for the future, sacrificing themselves for their family. This lifestyle choice has had its drawbacks and a present-oriented lifestyle was a reasonable choice for the younger generation, who experienced the other option first-hand growing up. However, no lifestyle is perfect. The YOLO lifestyle has its own shortcomings and it would be wise to prevent those side effects in the first place.
As social circumstances change, attitudes towards life also change. There is no single right answer to living a good life. Experts agree that the YOLO lifestyle is extremely influential and will have effects for a long time to come. There is nothing wrong with pursuing a YOLO lifestyle, but a balanced viewpoint and compassion for others is important. A YOLO generation that has consideration for both individuals and for society is necessary. That is when YOLO can be celebrated by older generations and act an example for future generations.