Work culture in Korea: The young ones.

I have a little bit of free time this morning, so I just wanted to fire of a slightly off topic post about a conversation I had with Busan a couple of weeks ago, which I was reminded of by this post on The Grand Narrative about young Koreans' struggle in finding acceptable jobs. It's a subject I, being a foreigner, don't know a whole lot about. So I mostly just listened, throwing in Devil's Advocate type arguments here and there, to try to get a feel for what might be going on.

Busan himself has just changed companies, and has come to Seoul in the first place because there was little work in his field back in his hometown. His friends, all around his age, are currently going through the same struggles -- looking for jobs, interviewing, finding unsatisfactory jobs, wanting more.

In Busan's opinion, it comes down to an unwillingness to work their way up. He said (paraphrased), "The job I accepted at first was nowhere near my ideal job. But it was a job at a company and I had to support myself. There's nothing wrong with that. When I have the means to support myself, and I start to gain skills, I can start to look around to find better and better positions and slowly move up. That's normal. But young people these days don't want to take a position that's lower than their ideal to begin with. They want to aim too high above their station to start. I was just out there -- there are plenty of jobs. They're just not the top jobs. Young people don't want to accept less than they think they deserve, not even to start. So they complain."

Busan's from a poor family, and echoing a lot of things I also said at the time when I was graduating university and hearing everyone around me complain and turn their noses up at perfectly good jobs which didn't provide them the status or the bragging rights they had imagined having. Some unemployed people who were relying on their parents' support would even cringe when I revealed, a few months after graduation, that I was still working at the university from which we had graduated.

The expenses of living in a major city are not a joke, and nobody wants to be hand-to-mouth forever. But Busan has kind of shifted my thinking about this issue in Korea a little. I started out in the conversation talking about competition and the grueling work schedules and rising cost of living and not being able to build a decent life. All of which I still think holds some truth everywhere, and in Seoul in particular -- right now, Busan's working until past 10 pm every night because he decided to take a step up in his career, which is something I'm just having to sit back and watch, a little agape, somehow knowing that it may never get better. But part of me is also now seeing some of what the older generation is bristling at, which is a certain arrogance on the part of the youth in this country, and their expectations for what they should have in life, in contrast to what their parents and their parents' parents may have had (and had to do to get it).

Almost every Korean I've spoken to on the subject, including Busan, agrees that it's time for Korea to stop focusing so much on economic progress and working on quality of life. Shorter working hours, essentially, is what that tends to mean. But for Busan, that means a move away from the focus on status. When young Koreans start turning their noses up at jobs with bigger salaries, weightier company names and longer working hours, and turning instead to more average jobs that allow them more free time to focus on their own lives and their families, then that's when the ship will start to turn around. In his mind (and mine as well), realistically, you can't have both.

That doesn't mean he's not still having a personal struggle about which direction to go in. It's easy enough to talk about it, but accepting a financially less stable position in order to make it happen, and not being able to see what the future holds, is not an easy choice to make. Most nights, these days, as he calls me while he's slipping off his shoes and finally stepping back into his small officetel at night, while I'm already curled up in bed, fed and washed, it usually just comes out as, "Korea is not poor anymore. Why do we have to work like we are?"

As for my part, I'm happy enough to sit down on the outside and watch how this all will play out. There are so many complicating factors -- gender and age in the workplace, the family structure and how women's roles (and expected roles) are going to play a part. I'm not building a family in Korea, right now, but I'm starting to have to be more and more serious in my thoughts about how it might feel to have a husband who doesn't get home until 11 pm every night, or to not have enough money to educate my children to the level that will send them off into the world on equal footing with their peers. It's not a pleasant issue to ponder. I have the ability to opt out of that, if I choose. Busan's not so lucky. There's a lot of weight on his shoulders right now. And that, I think, is what young Koreans are feeling more than anything else.


쏘냐 said...

I don't... really feel like young Korean people are acting entitled at all. Maybe it's just my company, but when I see how shittily the temp workers get treated here, I wonder how they /don't/ demand more. There are people who are nearing thirty years old, have worked here for 4+ years, and still get paid based on hourly calculations, with no health or leave benefits or possibility for a raise or promotion. EVER. They do it without bitching publicly. And they are smart people -- my coworker who speaks 3 foreign languages, a designer who has won a national competition, and an event planner who coordinated all of the press for G20 are just a few that I could name.

Meanwhile, "executives" who are in charge of a maximum of 40 people have $50k company cars, multiple personal secretaries, and private expense accounts. Our company barely employs 150 people, but our CEO has a damn bodyguard along with his three secretaries. (For a hometown comparison, my mom was a C-level executive at a 2,000-person company in California and we didn't have a company car and she had a shared secretary.)

Unless my experience is way off the radar, I think young people have every right to be pissed off over the shit quality of jobs that are available for them. The old fogeys are the entitled ones with over-inflated senses of self-worth.

I'm no Picasso said...

Yeah but I don't think he's talking about the shit conditions available in each job. He's been 막내 and bottom of the pile pretty much since he started and is working 야근 every night. He knows how shitty the work environment can be.

I think he's talking about two separate issues, the first of which being that you have to understand that holding an office job period is an unattainable dream to many people, Busan's family being some of those people. So, it's a little difficult for him to hear his friends complaining about this and that job and how they can't 'survive' because they don't want to deal with either a lower status job, or the pressure of a corporate job. His fifty year old mother works in a 식당 kitchen washing cabbage with North Korean refugees. It sounds entitled to him to hear his friends complaining. And I think a lot of lower class Koreans, especially from the older generation, feel the same.

But I think it's fair enough to say that until people are willing to trade their status for a better quality of life, it won't change. Until it becomes less desirable to work yourself to death in a quality company than to earn less money and have more time with your family, it's not going to change. I think Koreans are going to have to get fed up enough to risk their positions in order to have better conditions before it happens.

Annie Nimity said...

My situation sounds a lot like 쏘냐's. My company (located in Yeouido) has a little over 100 employees, although I can only talk about my department, as they're the only folks I have much interaction with. My department consists of 10 people, including me. Three of the others are interns. From talking with two of them, I know that my salary is more than the two of theirs combined. The interns in my department all have huge workloads, and are always still there when I leave. In fact, everyone is always still there when I leave. We're "encouraged" to stay longer, and the company will even reimburse us for dinner if we stay until 8pm, and for a taxi home if we stay until 11pm. Other than dinner and a taxi, this work is unpaid. (I head out at 6; no free dinner is worth my sanity.) Meanwhile, my coworkers are obviously exhausted and look like hell - yet brag about "I got reimbursed almost 2 million won for meals and taxis!" Once a month our company has "family day" where we get off at 5 instead of 6, so we can go spend time with our families. The C level execs come by our cubicles and tell us to go home and enjoy our afternoon off (hah) - then they leave... and no one else does. Except me. I swear I wanted to instigate a rebellion. I literally asked everyone in my department, "Why aren't you leaving?" and they all just looked down and mumbled. I don't get it at all. Plus.... surely they would all be more productive if they were well rested and relaxed? (And don't even get me started on people working while they're super-sick!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the link INP. In return, here's a link to a very pertinent article from the Samsung Economic Research Institute. It was written in 2008, but as you can see from the following paragraphs, it still has resonance today:


In sum, Koreans still regard their jobs principally as a means of livelihood. This mirrors the reality here in Korea where work does little to enrich the life of the people.

Many workers still take it for granted that they have to tolerate anything in return for getting paid. This kind of job atmosphere produces a negative influence on both companies and employees alike. With this in mind, businesses need to make more efforts to develop new programs, aimed at bringing a higher sense of value of work and satisfaction to their employees.

Anonymous said...

Sorry that my link isn't working for some reason! But it's fine if you copy and paste.

I'm no Picasso said...

Anonymity -- Yeah, again, I'm not denying the shitty work conditions at companies. I thought I was seeing a lot of it before with my Korean coworkers (and they do work very hard, very laboriously during the hours they are working), but having a boyfriend at a Korean company has shown me a whole other side to things. He's messaging me right now about his "pathetic life", as a matter of fact.

But I'm talking more about the job hunt and the expectations that young people have when they're entering their companies. Realistically, it's not going to be the Average Joe that scores a job at a high ranking company with a good salary and decent working hours with no experience. At some point, something has to give.

It's good, the drive to change things. It gives me hope that the generation entering companies now will have the motivation to turn things around when they're the ones in charge, but I think until there is a large social move to start just flat out saying 'no' to the way things are, despite what it may cost in the short run, things won't change.

TGN -- Please do, if you don't mind. The snippet is interesting. This is me just starting to learn more about this world, and I mostly have to rely on Busan for insight. I'm grateful for that, but I also realize that it limits my perspective to seeing things through his point of view. Thank you.

I'm no Picasso said...

TGN -- Sorry, misread that. C&Ping. Thank you.

동수 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
동수 said...

The grass is always greener on the other side, I suppose. And to get to this prairie,everyone starting from the bottom whether well educated or not(unless with connections), is expected to "crawl through a river of shit and come out clean" - Shawshank Redemption.
Therefore, I carefully assume that this may apply to all nations.
As one of many currently crawling to reach that warm prairie, I hope our generation bears the kindness(guts) to look back and offer a helpful hand to those that will be crawling in the future after having reached the plains floweth of milk and honey.
Seems like Korea needs this ^^;