The tragic, but apparently preventable, sinking of the Sewol ferry highlights the danger of South Korea’s “hurry, hurry” culture.
Korean culture is exceptional in the emphasis it places on speed: finishing projects on time, or rushing a new consumer product onto the market. Korean workers are both envied and feared by international competitors for their willingness to work long hours.
The culture of haste starts with children, as primary school children are rushed from school to a variety of daily extracurricular programs: piano, English and taekwondo. High school students often don’t return home until late at night after having completed grueling 14-hour stints of classes and lessons.
All South Koreans are used to rushing to meet a deadline. A superior at a workplace decides that a project or task is to be completed by an impending deadline, causing all subordinates to hasten to comply.
But there is downside to this competitive and pressured culture. The Sewol ferry was apparently hurrying, trying to make up time.
Often deadlines are arbitrary or could have been avoided or minimized with better preparation. At times, as with the Sewol, the deadline is impossible to meet due to factors beyond human control, such as the fog which delayed the ferry’s journey.
Consumers of Korean products in Western markets complain that although the appliance or phone looks great, there is inadequate long-term support. The software is difficult to update, and there has been little consideration of long-term use of the product.
Korean workers complain about the long hours demanded by employers that make achieving a work-life balance impossible. Women often bear the brunt of the “hurry, hurry” culture as they have prime responsibility for the home and increasingly have paid employment. They must hurry at home and hurry at work.
The emphasis on speed served Korea well during its rapid development, but increasingly hard questions are being asked by leaders in business, government and education, as well as within families.
Korean industry can no longer compete solely on quick turnaround and mass production. China’s rise in the world economy, along with other Asian nations, means that Korea must be more strategic and aim for high-value-added products. These cannot be designed and produced through arbitrary deadlines.
Getting an expensive product on the market first is of less importance than ensuring the product performs as advertised, has been thoroughly tested and is carefully designed.
Politicians and government officials agree more and more that working hours are too long, with plans well along to reduce the maximum weekly hours from the current 68 to 52. Shorter working hours will compel employers to be more strategic, rather than relying on the ability to marshal a workforce to meet deadlines.
A further step would be for the government to provide carrots, if not sticks, for employers to institute flexible work hours. Seoul, in particular, with its transit congestion, would benefit if employees could start and end their working days at staggered times or, even better, work from home at times.
Educational institutions are gradually shifting to learning that features fewer hours of rote memorizing, but rather strengthens creativity and problem solving. Scientists and professors are progressively beginning to measure not the number of patents granted or papers published, but the contribution they make.
Lastly, families are considering different choices. Some parents avoid sending their children to after-school programs, believing that play and free time are critical to child development. A career at a chaebol with punishing hours is still the desire of many university graduates, but others find equal self-worth through different paths.
Breakneck speed served Korea extraordinarily well. However, a “hurry, hurry” culture, like a sprinter, can compete for only a short period time. For Korea’s longer-term global success, as well as the safety and well-being of its citizens, speed must be tempered with strategy and planning.
By Thomas Klassen
Thomas Klassen is a professor of political science at York University in Toronto, Canada. He is currently in Seoul as a Korea Foundation field research fellow and a visiting professor at Yonsei University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.