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[Kim Ji-hyun] Working 52 hours a week

A life with evenings. It’s a “Konglish” expression, but essentially it means a life that guarantees leisure time in the evenings. It is a dream for a lot of Koreans, who are known to be chronic workaholics by either choice or force. Among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korea is always near the top in terms of hours of work.

And now, under revised laws, this dream is on the brink of coming true. 

A myriad of problems face one of the biggest lifestyle changes in Korean history. Expenses may or may not go up, but companies will have to adjust the working environment to fit all the work into 52 hours a week.

In a recent survey by Job Korea, around 50 percent of 905 employees working at companies with 300 and more workers said they were looking forward to the change. However, almost the same percentage of people said they either don’t care or believe the change would be minimal.

Despite the good intent of the “new policy,” complaints are piling up. The biggest is that workers will be earning less because there won’t be any overtime pay. For high earners, this may be a smaller problem, but for those who depend more on such overtime pay, it means a lot less in their pockets.

We can’t tell these people to just suck it up, because it’s about their livelihoods. However, the system must change fundamentally so that unless it’s in industries like hospitals and game developing, employees shouldn’t have to rely on overtime.

Now this is actually a really big change from the past when putting in long hours, burning the midnight oil and getting up at the crack of dawn the next day was a virtue. Our fathers, mothers and grandparents can’t believe that “young people” don’t want to work as much as before.

They worry about the fate of companies and the country when so many people won’t be on the workforce, making sure everything is all right and everything is running smoothly.

Hopefully, systems are in place, and the right technology is being used, so that even without extra work and extra hours, neither the economy nor the corporate sector will suffer too much.

Restaurants and diners are also worried that they won’t have as much business as before. But maybe it’s not all pessimistic. New types of places will most likely sprout up, and they have already. New businesses depending on employees being freed up for the evenings and more family time will also be born. Places where hobbies can be nurtured will flourish.

Working 52 hours a week is not a silver bullet. And perhaps later on, these hours may also be adjusted, either higher or lower. Hopefully lower.

The challenges and struggles are all natural. Until we can adjust to the new system, there will continue to be a steady stream of complaints. These in turn, will of course help make improvements and facilitate a soft landing.

Working less is not the answer to everything. As a case in point, surveys are showing that more and more people are opting for flexible working hours, and focusing less on putting in less.

The current adjustments and changes -- painful and new as they may feel -- will be part of the necessary journey for coming up with a better plan.

By Kim Ji-hyun

Kim Ji-hyun is the managing editor of The Investor. -- Ed