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Dispute over a 69-hour week reveals generational differences in South Korea

SEOUL, South Korea — It was an extraordinary outburst from one of South Korea’s most famous sons.

“Westerners just don’t get it,” Kim Nam-joon, 28, stormed to Spanish daily El Pais when asked if the notoriously intense training programs were for the stars of K-pop, the country’s world-conquering music genre exaggerated.

“South Korea didn’t exist 70 years ago,” said Mr. Kim, “but now the whole world is looking at Korea. How did this happen?”

Work hard, he said, punctuating his remark with an expletive: “That’s how you get things done!”

Mr. Kim is not a hard worker in a hard hat or a serious executive in a suit. Better known as “RM,” he’s the frontman of supergroup BTS, the face of millennial, hydrating South Korean cool. But his sweaty work ethic could put him on the wrong side of a deep rift over work, values ​​and dealing with deeply worrisome population trends.

The 28-year-old pop star sounds oddly dated, reflecting a dying South Korean breed: the economic warrior.

South Korea’s notorious work culture is in the spotlight after President Yoon Suk Yeol’s conservative government proposed on March 6 to increase the maximum allowable working week from 52 hours (40 hours plus 12 overtime hours) to 69 hours, or an average of just over 9.85 hours a day, seven days a week.

In a nation where C-suites agonize over rigid work regulations, Mr. Yoon portrays the proposed increase as giving employees the opportunity to work longer hours if they choose — hours they can take off later. He also wants to ease the employment burden on the mom-and-pop businesses that are the bottom tier of this top-heavy economy: restaurants, college schools, convenience stores, taxi services, and the like.

The Korea Enterprise Federation and other small business groups have welcomed the plan, but there has been vocal opposition, including from unions.

The 52-hour cap was introduced just five years ago by President Moon Jae-in, whose opposition Democratic Party of Korea still controls the National Assembly.

“The age of growth by squeezing people is now over,” thundered DPK boss Lee Jae-myung, who favors a 4½-day week.

In the face of the backlash and global headlines caused by the 69-hour proposal, Mr Yoon backtracked, ordering the Labor Department to take Millennials’ views into account as it weighed how to implement the change.

The plan stays on the table. Labor Department officials say they are tweaking the bill with a goal of delivering a final draft on April 12.

Only then is it ready for assembly.

Economic boom, generation gap

Debate and popular opposition are a measure of how far South Korean society has come. A 69-hour week would have been child’s play for workers in the last decades of the 20th century as they transformed the country into an unlikely global economic powerhouse.

Today’s prosperous, democratic, and liberal South Korea is a far cry from the poor, authoritarian, and hard-line country of yesteryear. After the devastation of the Korean War and the lack of natural resources, the country turned to the work ethic of its people to lift it out of agrarian poverty. it was enough

With governments and business owners promoting a militaristic, ambitious mindset that works to the limit, South Koreans forged what many consider an economic miracle and is now ranked as the 13th largest economy in the world.

“The Koreans came out of nowhere. … They’ve worked 84 hours a week with no overtime for more than a decade,” Berkshire Hathaway vice chairman Charlie Munger once remarked. “At the same time, every little Korean would come home from elementary school and work four or five hours with a tutor…driven by these ‘tiger moms.'”

A Korean businessman in his 50s who took over his late father’s company added another component: patriotism.

“My father’s generation was more patriotic,” says the businessman. “It was, ‘You gotta do this for the country. It’s a ‘sacrifice’ added to a ‘can-do’ spirit.”

After overcoming the trauma of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, South Korea experienced an economic boom. Today it boasts global mega brands like Samsung and Hyundai, a sparkling high-tech infrastructure and a popular culture admired the world over.

“I consider the Koreans who worked from 1960 to 2000 to be the greatest generation: they lifted the country out of millennia of poverty,” said Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans. “But families and individuals did not necessarily benefit from macro success because it was about the pursuit of national economic prowess, not the pursuit of individual happiness.”

From economic warriors to cool Koreans

The “work-life balance” striven for today is far removed from the experiences of parents and grandparents. The older generation had little opportunity for – or understanding of – leisure. Only after the introduction of a five-day work week in 2002 did the concept of leisure and related services for people with free time gain momentum.

Still, the youngsters don’t have it easy. Social pressures to conform and excel remain, as confirmed by K-Pop’s Mr. Kim.

Younger workers have also seen the evaporation of “jobs for life” that companies used to offer en masse. Due to slowing growth rates, economic standstill and outsourcing of companies, careers at the highest level and guaranteed lifetime employment for workers have become scarce.

Young South Koreans mock “Hell Joseon” (the name of a Korean dynasty) because of their stressed lives and worry about the concept of “gwarosa” – “death from overwork”. South Korea has the highest suicide rate of any developed nation in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Younger Koreans are giving up childbearing, leaving Korea with the world’s lowest fertility rate — an average of 0.78 children per woman — and a looming demographic crisis. The government has even touted the 69-hour workweek limit as paradoxically a way of giving young couples more time to start families.

Labor Secretary Lee Jung-sik sparked a backlash when he argued that the longer statutory workweek would give workers the opportunity to build up overtime that they can pool for later childbirth and child-rearing periods.

“We will introduce bold measures to reduce working hours during pregnancy or while raising children,” Mr Lee said when asked if the increase would help ease the fertility crisis.

Not everyone buys this argument. Some say longer workweeks will do nothing to address the population crisis.

“While men work long hours and are exempt from caring responsibilities and rights, women must do all the caring work,” the Korean Women’s Associations United said in a statement protesting the proposed workweek changes.

Some see benefits in South Korea’s changing attitude to work and play.

Venture capital, previously reserved exclusively for large corporations, is now increasingly available to young entrepreneurs. Last year, South Korea hosted the world’s ninth largest herd of so-called unicorns — startup companies valued at more than $1 billion ahead of their first public share offering.

The burgeoning gig economy and work-from-home trend sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns are further eroding old-school practices.

“For my father’s generation, an individual didn’t need anything. It was unity. You were a small nail in the toolbox,” the businessman said.

“But that mindset won’t work for my children’s generation. They want creativity and flexibility.”

New attitudes

They also want respect.

Managers used to pile up work, keep employees up late, demand attendance at drunken after-work meetings, dictate vacation times, and dish out angry criticism.

As work culture changed, softer attitudes prevailed.

“The younger generation respects people’s time more and respects that they have other pursuits in life – like family – than the older generation,” said Mr. Breen, who runs a public relations firm.

The work itself has become an option.

“As prosperity grows, so does a society that caters to ambitious people,” Mr Breen said. “It doesn’t mean that society is going under. Society as a whole does not have to work at full speed.”

The South Korean businessman, who has college-age sons, fears today’s youth are better suited for the service sector than manufacturing, which remains the country’s economic backbone.

“My sons can work on a laptop out of bed without having to be in an office or ever meet a boss,” he said. “But this country is export-oriented and you need local people who can put in the time. As long as this economy exists, labor hours will be required. Not everything is Google and AI.”

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