Saturday, May 24, 2008

Forbes ranks South Korea as hardest-working country. reports that in South Korea
the average employee works 2,357 hours per year--that’s six-and-a-half hours for every single day of their life. According to a 2008 ranking by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, South Koreans work the longest hours per year, on average, out of every other OECD member.

It comes as no surprise for many of us to hear that Koreans put in long hours, whether at work or at school. Matter of fact I just caught myself skimming over the part in the article about the civil servant who sees his kids "10 or 15 minutes a week, and then just on the weekend" without much of a reaction because that's something we hear about frequently. At my private school my first year, classes didn't end until 10:50 p.m., and the lecture hall always had dozens of students in "detention" until 12:30 a.m. But I think many of us would dispute "hardest-working," at least according to how we define the term, because a lot of what falls under the umbrella is face time, whether at the office, asleep in the lounge, or hanging out with the boss after hours. The Forbes piece continues, after talking about other countries with less rigorous schedules:
As for the opposite extreme, South Korea, things are slowly moving toward the OECD norm after the Korean government introduced a five-day working week in 2004 for schools and companies with over 1,000 employees. But with the culture of hard work so deeply ingrained, change is slow. "A Korean's identity comes from his title at work," says Michael Breen, author of The Koreans, explaining that employees often refer to each other by titles such as "office manager Kim" or "accountant Park," even outside the workplace.

"This is an authoritarian corporate culture," he adds. "It's very bad form to leave the office before the boss does, so people will hang around doing nothing, and then when the boss leaves, they feel free to leave. ... Because of all of that, people don't have much of a life."

Productivity remains low, though, and a Korea Times piece from last year says, quoting from the International Labour Office, that South Korea's productivity remains at 68% of the US's. A Los Angeles Times article from last month has a lot of the same statistics of the Forbes piece, but presents the flip-side of the issue. An excerpt:
Many South Koreans see their lives as well short of wonderful. Workers put in the longest hours in any free-market economy. Students are pushed to study to exhaustion. And among the most advanced democracies, South Koreans remain among the stingiest when it comes to spending on leisure and fun.

The situation leaves South Koreans poised on the fringes of a collective burnout, a national state of stress and grumpiness that could complicate new President Lee Myung-bak's contention that they all should work harder to reboot a sluggish economy.

"South Koreans are not trained to enjoy cultural life and leisure," complained Yoon Chang-il, 47, a patent lawyer in Seoul who says his generation remains gripped by a fear of falling behind working peers and competitors. "Most people work late at night, both men and women, single and married, because there is a business culture of obsession and pressure. And when you go to the office on Saturdays, there are always people working."

Wikipedia points us to an article from the Christian Science Monitor from 2001, on the topic of creating the five-day work-week in South Korea. The article gives us this chart:

And this quotable paragraph:
But many observers expect it may take a while before South Korea's obsessive culture of work recedes from society. Even if the government regulates shorter work hours, they say, people may voluntarily abstain from earned vacations.

Wikipedia also points us to an article in the Asia Times that talks about death by overwork, although that piece deals mainly with Japan. In a 2007 release by, a government-run page, two-thirds of Koreans considered themselves workaholics, with 38% saying they are required to work overnight or weekends, and 34% saying they voluntarily put in overtime in order to meet deadlines. The tricky question is, were respondants being truthful, or were they exaggerating because Korean culture has historically expected them to work hard, and were thus guilted into responding the way they did?

The CSM piece talks about how being so overworked is actually counterproductive and counterintuitive, and at least some people share those sentiments. There was a piece in the Korea Times a few weeks ago that talked about it, but I can't find it now, though I did come across this article talking about how some employers are starting to value creativity. It contains the same information we've just read in other articles, so I'll just excerpt a couple parts:
``Being busy is the biggest enemy to becoming creative,'' said Seoul-based career coach Kim Sul-nam, who teaches working men and women how to draw out their inner creativity. ``Korean society, as we know, is one of the fastest-moving in the world, so that's already not a great start.''

``You can't expect someone to come up with the most clever and unique ideas, when he or she is tired to death,'' said Kim, stressing that the best ideas come ``when your mind and body are relaxed.''

A team of Dutch psychologists found in 2006 that people struggling to make complex decisions did best when they were not concentrating on the situation at all, which demonstrates that working around the clock isn't the smartest way to go.

Blogger "Roboseyo" shares some of his thoughts on the topic here.

I'm sure this Forbes article will be used by Kimcheerleaders to champion whatever it is they need to champion about Korean culture, and after this article went online the scholars on Dave's did their requisite collective groan. I did too, a little, because I remember having to teach middle school students a chapter from this book with this reading (page 198):
My father says that Koreans are one of the hardest working peoples in the world. And I think it's true. I live in Dallas, and I have some friends from Korea in my neighborhood. Their parents work very hard. They usually start their work early in the morning and come back home late at night. And they do their best for their children to have a better education. They know what's important in life.
- Betty Smith from Dallas, Texas.

Wait for it . . . *groan*. The implication being that parents from other cultures don't know what's most important in life. We just read about the man who sees his kids 10 minutes a week. We saw an article in the KT twelve days ago reporting that 72% of men drink alcohol every day. We know how busy students are and how their parents use after-school academies as babysitting services. Yet there is still the deep conviction that Korean parents are somehow more loving, more caring. I wonder if the woman who said this is a parent:
Jung Yeon-hee, a chairwoman of the Seoul City Council who pushes ahead with the plan, said ``I have never seen students who die because of studying.''

Tactless, tasteless. Korea has the highest suicide rate in the OCED, and that Chosun Ilbo article tells us the leading cause of death of people in their 20s and 30s in Korea is suicide (motor vehicle accidents is the leading killer of that demographic back home). I can't find any statistics now, but from anecdotal evidence I can see that suicide among overworked, or overbullied, students in South Korea is not unusual. One such story was of two twin sisters in Changwon who threw themselves from the top of an apartment building last December after testing poorly.

Well, I'm getting off topic, and all those issues are something a more able writer could write a book, or five, about. A book nobody in Korea would take seriously because the writer's not Korean. But my point wasn't to make fun of Koreans, but to provide a little bit of context to what I'm sure will be the leading headline on all the Korean papers the next week or so. It's just weird that again, as with that New York Times piece on Korea's awesome Foreign Language High Schools, the writers at these huge media institutions are still writing "puff pieces," as the Metropolitician calls them, rather than spending thirty minutes googling around. Anyway, working hard is important, and at least Koreans seem to be in agreement about that, even if "what's most important in life" varies from person to person. Certainly prefer this to the slacker chic that is celebrated in the US.

But, whatever, I'd like to close with a few excerpts from a neat little book called Confucius Lives Next Door. It deals mostly with Japan, but I still find parts of it applicable. There's a whole lot I want to quote from this chapter---like this bit about "almost all Japanese schools, businesses, and agencies have more workers than a comparable company would have in the West"---but I'll keep it short. It starts by talking about the manipulation of the yen in the mid-80s, the consequential recession, the myth of "lifetime employment," and the social contract between employers and employees. I'll pick it up here, when it talks a little about "productivity" and how there statistics on productivity and diligence are limiting, and cannot be simply examined out of the context of their respective societies. From page 187-188:
A more significant explanation for the low rate of unemployment, even in recession, is that the Japanese have made a national calculation of comparative costs. They have decided that the social costs associated with large-scale unemployment would be greater than the costs required to keep people at work. "There are always costs involved in unemployment," the economist Takeuchi Hiroshi, the chief forecaster for the Long-Term Credit Bank of Japan, explained to me once. "The only question is who bears the expense. In your country, it's usually the worker first, and then the government, and then the society as a whole because you have all those people on the street without a job. In Japan, the company is expected to bear the costs, because that's better for society as a whole."

This policy explains why Japan, despite its emergence as a global financial and industrial power, always rates fairly low on global comparisons of productivity. My economics text defines "productivity" as "the relative efficiency of economic activity---that is, the amount of products or services produced compared to the amount of goods and labor used to produce it." This means that a company or country that turns out a lot of product with few people working on any given job than you would see in another country. In purely industrial terms, low productivity is a Bad Thing; it increases direct costs. But for Japan, low productivity is the secret weapon. It's a key reason why the socieity remains civil, stable, and safe. Other countries have to spend far more money, time, and energy combating crime, drugs, and family decay than Japan spends. So economists may find, when measuring the direct costs of producing a new car, case of beer, microchip, or whatever, that Japan has low productivity. But Japan has also reduced the indirect costs that stem from the rigors of high-productivity societies.


Roboseyo said...

I always like to make the distinction between hardest working and longest working. Maybe Jean 35-hour workweek of France puts in 32 highly productive hours during his 35 hours of work, while Chulsoo 55 of Korea ALSO does 32 highly productive hours, but spreads them out over his 60 hour workweek, between smoke breaks, online chats, naps at the desk, two-hour lunches, and long spells of "look busy waiting for the boss to go home" in the evening. Who's harder working? Hard to say.

I've been explaining the law of diminishing returns to any Korean who will listen lately in my adult conversation classes.

thanks for this post.

Sonagi said...

Koreans told me that one reason very young children are indulged is that from the time they attend school until retirement, Koreans spend long hours studying and working under stress. The only break in between is the freshmen year at university, and even this break is disappearing with the replacement of admission to specific departments with admission to colleges of arts, science, engineering, etc. Students are admitted to majors during the first two years based on grades. Thus, the freshmen year is a continuation of the rat race of high school.

As for productivity, US productivity figures are skewed because they take into account only working people, not the unemployed receiving public assistance and the world's largest prison population. As a teacher, I am concerned by the significant numbers of American children being raised in unstable homes, not learning life skills, and sometimes neglected or even abused. We in school do all we can, but there is a limit to how much we can help a child overcome an unhealthy home environment, and there are some American children trapped in schools and communities where so many are disfunctional.

Some Americans complain about illegal immigrants, but I will tell you as a teacher of children from such homes that these kids have potential because they are generally well cared for, and their parents have life skills. They may not speak much English and lack professional skills, but they know how to get a job and keep it. They model life skills to their children by going to work every day and supporting a household. They feed their children three meals a day and dress them in clean clothes. They teach them social skills.

It would be very interesting to see productivity figures that include all non-disabled adults with a monetary value assigned to the unpaid labor of housewives.

Brian said...

Really interesting comment, thank you Sonagi. I'm kind of out of the loop back home and haven't really been around American children since I was one myself, but I do know that "productivity" is a loaded word that often has very negative consequences. I'd be interested, too, in seeing statistics for Korea and the US that aren't skewed by selective samples, but like the book I excerpted points out, there are societal costs to be weighed when measuring productivity, and I'd rather have companies---and cultures---being unproductive on paper rather than be dysfunctional in real life.

Thanks for your comment too, Roboseyo. Must've taken all day for you to write the "magic wand" piece.