Kkondae Generation 2: Working Culture in South Korea
Recently the term ‘lying flat’ has been trending on China's internet. This, in essence, translates to an ‘I can’t be bothered’ attitude (Meng, 2021), and is a reaction to a harsh working environment that requires employees to regularly work overtime or even expects them to work from 9am to 9pm six days a week, better known as the 996 working culture. Similar demands are not only made in China, but also in Japan and South Korea. South Korea has the second-longest working hours of all OECD countries. Only in 2018 did its government, under progressive President Moon Jae-In, finally take measures to officially reduce the maximum weekly working hours from 68 to 52. The new amendment will be effective this year from 1st July (Flemer, Kim & Chang, 2021).
Having worked for two years in Seoul in a Korean start-up company, I can attest firsthand to some of these employer-employee expectations. Working overtime is a demonstration of one’s devotion to the company. Often, however, there is no good reason to stay longer. Still, a Korean boss will not praise a worker that is efficient and manages to complete the work within the official working hours; rather, he will commend someone who stays overtime; even if it means twiddling one’s thumbs for the next few hours. For an intern, a boss’ demands can be even harsher. In South Korea, an internship is the period where the company decides whether or not one is worth employing full-time. In order to get the ticket to full-time employment, many young graduates will undergo humiliation and cruel treatment. This phenomenon has been satirized in the drama “Kkondae Intern” aired in 2020 (MacDonald, 2020), where a young man, after suffering at the hands of an older boss, gets the chance to reverse their roles and reciprocate the treatment. Kkondae (꼰대) is a slang term which refers to condescending older men, who believe that their experiences and age entitles them to respect and deference.
I can also remember the times when I was called into the office of my boss and underwent hours of chansori (잔소리), which best translates as nagging or reprimanding. This usually happens when a small mistake is overinflated, causing one’s boss to launch into a time-consuming tirade: “Back in my day, we were expected to work overtime, we never disobeyed our superiors...” and so on - this can carry on for four hours. Of course, for the kkondae boss, this is seen as a chance to set a worker on the correct path rather than as a waste of time. It was when discussing this with my Korean friends, that I first learnt about the term kkondae. Initially defending my boss by arguing that he was too young to be referred to as such, (he was only in his late 30s or early 40s), I now know that kkondae is not so much a term which refers to a designated group of people, but rather one describing an attitude and a mindset through which interpersonal relationships are viewed as vertical and not horizontal (Yang, 2021).
This is a phenomenon a considerable number of my Korean acquaintances have experienced too. Many younger people, however, have decided not to be used in that way. It takes a bit of stubbornness and courage to walk out of the office once the working day is officially finished, when many of your fellow colleagues remain sitting.
South Korea’s rapid economic rise is attributed to the older generation, who had sacrificed their private lives for the national good. Korea’s society is marked by a ppali ppali (빨리 빨리) culture, where all services are delivered punctually, from its efficient subway system, to same-day parcel delivery or even virtually immediate eye-test results and glasses services. However, the unsustainable effects of such a culture are becoming increasingly visible. Housing prices and living costs continue to rise (Batarags, 2021). More female citizens have entered the workforce, but childcare welfare remains limited. Now South Korea is facing a serious problem of an aging population and low birth-rates (The Korea Herald, 2021). The government has tried to solve this by adopting a more open immigration policy (Lee, 2021). However, the core problem is South Korea’s domestic working environment. Under law, mothers are entitled to three months of maternity leave, and as of 2019 fathers can also take 10 days of paternity leave; but this is rarely taken up due to the fear of putting one’s job at risk (Bloomberg, 2021). Equally, it is hard to achieve a good work-life balance. According to the OECD Better Life Index (2021), South Koreans endure one of the worst work-life balances, only faring better than Colombia, Mexico and Turkey. A recent survey covering over 72 000 office workers across 9371 local companies found that 70% of workers in South Korea suffer from burnout (Shim, 2020). If the government aims to boost quality of life and birth rates, it must first address the underlying problems of an unhealthy national working culture. Amending laws alone is just the first step. The government also has the responsibility to increase pressure on companies and employers to follow these regulations and ultimately promote a discourse that can change these conservative attitudes.
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