The Asian Voice

Making a life in workaholic S. Korea: The Korea Herald Columnist

A woman looks at recruiting information during a job fair in Seoul.
A woman looks at recruiting information during a job fair in Seoul.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL (THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Lee Dae Seong, 68, remembers how he and his coworkers at an international trading firm in the 1970s used to break into a cheer when they were notified that they would have Sunday off. It was usually assumed that they would work seven days a week. They would only have to do six if they were lucky.

The country had a nationwide curfew then between midnight and 4 am, where you were not allowed to stay outside, a system originally started by the United States occupation forces in 1945. To avoid breaking the rule, his team would often book a room at a nearby motel and continue their work until the morning.

He could devote his uninterrupted time and attention to his work, as his stay-at-home wife took care of their two boys. His monthly paycheck was around 200,000 won (S$246) by the 1980s, enough to support his family.

A large part of his work was the sense of achievement, recalled Lee.

With his wife's nimble investment strategies, they soon bought a house in western Seoul, a neighbourhood just starting to develop. With the country's hypnotic economic growth, so did his paycheck.

He barely got to see his children, and when one or both of them got into trouble at school, he scolded his wife for not doing her job right. After all, he was pulling his weight.

In truth, Dae-seong always felt rushed and anxious. The country was never really stable as it went through industrialisation and democratisation. Every time North Korea made a provocative gesture, he felt extreme anger against it for threatening what he had worked so hard to build up.

While he had no control over all that political stuff, he believed in his work and his company as it continued to grow. He felt he was contributing to the rise of the country, on top of his own family, by sacrificing his life.

Lee Joon-seong, 34, has vague memories of spending time with his father as a child. He and his younger brother respected him, and were ecstatic whenever his father took a day off on the weekend and took them out to eat, usually a pork cutlet at a new restaurant in their neighbourhood.

His mother would always tell them to be frugal, saying how even a single sheet of their toilet paper was the result of their father's hard work.

When Joon-seong graduated from a prestigious college - a collaboration of his cram studies and his mother's marvelous information gathering skills - he gave no other thought but to join an ad affiliate of one of the country's large conglomerates, one that his now-retired father had worked for.

The hours were crazy. He would go to work at around 9 am and often stay until midnight or later, each day. It meant he only got about four hours of sleep, and that includes those interrupted by phone calls and email alerts from overseas clients.

He married his colleague, who honestly was better than him at work. They zigzagged through their hectic schedule, and vowed to hold onto their jobs, as they watched their colleagues leave to join startups or start their own. They felt a pang of envy as the former coworkers brazenly called their company bureaucratic and inefficient. Then, his wife got pregnant.

His wife returned three months after giving birth to their daughter. Their combined bank accounts quickly fell into the red as they paid for their expenses, their babysitter and the interest on the loan for their small rented apartment.

While the government spewed out subsidies and benefits for new parents - which were unquestionably helpful - the two, overworked and exhausted, were desperate for one thing: time. Finding a person to look after their baby was a constant battle. The wife was usually the one that went home early and missed out on company meetings or dinners.

Joon-seong came upon a news report recently that Korea's average hours worked ranked among the highest levels among the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, but that the productivity failed to reach even half of the level of advanced nations.

According to the World Economic Forum, Korea's labour market efficiency ranked 77th as of 2016, lower than China's 39th. The WEF defines efficient labour markets as matching workers with the most suitable jobs for their skillset and incentivising both employees and employers to act in ways that promote the productivity of human capital.

Joon-seong knew he was one of the privileged ones, as he watched the news break down how one-third of all workers in the country were irregular. For every million won people like him at large firms earned, irregular workers at small companies earned 350,000 won, with less social and health benefits.

Joon-seong doesn't necessarily want to get a promotion. In fact, he is well aware that if he is promoted, he would have to work even longer hours.

He recalled when his father shook his head when he had told him he didn't really care about "reaching the top." He had accepted the fact that he would never be able to double his assets being a salary man like his father.

His paycheck has long been more of a duty than a source of gratitude. His wife, usually depressed or disgruntled, only thanked him when he could manage to take weekends off and take care of their daughter.

Joon-seong usually feels rushed and anxious. He does not know how much longer his family can keep up with the stop-gap way of raising their child, let alone think about having another one.

Joon-seong often seriously considers relocating to a different country, where he would probably not hold such a respectable job. But at least the child will be free of school stress and polluted air and detached from patriotic burdens. Honestly, he was also just fed up with the routine political hullaballoo of election season and security tension with the North.

He knows his father strived to succeed in his career to become irreplaceable at work. But as he watched his retired father struggling to form, belatedly, relationships with him and his brother, he promised himself to not repeat the same mistake. He knew he was already irreplaceable, for his family.

As he rushed his daughter into daycare on his way to work, he just hoped that in her time, things would be better, and she would be able to make a life for herself doing what she loved.