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[Weekender] The Korean Office

Why do we work? Or rather, why do we work so much?

For Koreans who are supposedly some of the most overworked people among OECD countries, these are questions that we constantly ask ourselves.

And although we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, few seem to have the answers.

It is also ironic that when we are out of a job, we become most desperate to get one. But once we do, the whining begins. Such is the twisted relationship that most enjoy with their jobs.

In Korea, where Confucianism mingles with Western trains of thought, conflicting perspectives are fast emerging about the definition of an ideal job or workplace.

In the past, most people were content at simply holding a job. For them, working was a sacred act that helped them put food on the table. And once you were employed, you were employed for life.
Office workers work in an illuminated office building at night in the Gangnam district in Seoul. (Bloomberg)
Office workers work in an illuminated office building at night in the Gangnam district in Seoul. (Bloomberg)

Other traditional ideas were that women should quit soon after marriage ― the reason behind the high percentage of men in their forties and older employees in the workforce ― and that promotions should be based on seniority.

Hierarchy, meanwhile, was considered the utmost tool for governing organizations.

Some of these ideas and phenomena are now quickly being replaced with new ones.

Women have become more economically active, for instance, while job-hopping has become a norm in several sectors such as among multinational companies or tech firms.

Seniority still prevails, but these days, it would be difficult to convince the management to give a promotion to someone just because he or she is older than another employee with better skillsets.

After-work gatherings also appear to be drastically changing in nature.

In the previous male-dominated society whose main purpose was swift industrialization, most of the crucial business decisions were made after work, usually during heavy drinking sessions.

It was all about mingling with the right people and also making a good impression on your boss to the extent of drinking beer from his shoe.

Such gatherings are rapidly becoming a thing of the past as more companies are adopting new codes of conduct that encourage employees to engage in “healthier” forms of after-hours entertainment.

But on the downside, the renewed emphasis on individualism has spawned a whole new breed of employees who refuse to go out of their way unless profit is involved.

Unless they are paid for every step of the way, it seems like workers just can’t be bothered to make sacrifices.

If Korea was a society operated by flawless systems, this would not be a problem. But as it is not, the capability of each individual weighs immensely on the organization.

At the same time, job hunters are still mainly interested in stable government jobs that guarantee a hefty post-retirement pension.

This week, we delve into the mysterious ways of the Korean office to see the tide of changes that are taking place and how people are coping with them.

By Kim Ji-hyun (
Korea Herald Youtube