Student in Korea

Unveiling the Work Culture in Korea: A Glimpse Into the Past and Future

Explore the intricate work culture of South Korea, from its historical origins to its contemporary evolution. This revealing piece is a must-read for potential students and foreign workers.
Unveiling the Work Culture in Korea: A Glimpse Into the Past and Future
Photo by Benjamin Child / Unsplash

As an expatriate living in dynamic, technologically advanced South Korea, I have been amazed by the nation's swift economic growth and vibrant culture. From its ancient palaces and temples to its bustling street markets and ultra-modern skyscrapers, Korea offers a unique blend of tradition and innovation that captivates the senses. However, as I've delved deeper into the heart of this fascinating culture, I've discovered that behind the bright lights and impressive economic figures lies a darker side of the Korean work culture that may pose challenges to international students and foreign workers.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of Korea's work culture is its long working hours. The devastation of the Korean War necessitated a  rebuilding effort, which fostered a culture of relentless dedication and labor. This intense work ethic pushed the nation into an era of unprecedented economic growth from the 1960s to the 1990s, fondly referred to as the "Miracle on the Han River." However, the leftovers of this era can still be seen today in the form of long working hours. According to a 2020 report by the OECD, South Korean employees worked an average of 1,967 hours per year, compared to the OECD average of 1,682 hours.

Yet, the impact of these long hours extends far beyond the office. A BBC article from 2019 highlights the phenomenon of "gwarosa," or death by overwork, a grim reality for many Korean workers.
The hierarchical nature of Korean society, deeply rooted in Confucian principles, also influences the work culture. The concept of "nunchi," or the art of understanding one's place and how to behave within a hierarchy, is prevalent in Korean workplaces, as reported by the New York Times. This can sometimes lead to power imbalances and workplace bullying, making it difficult for foreign workers to navigate the work environment.

However, it's important to recognize that Korea, like its rapidly transforming skyline, is evolving. The government and society are beginning to acknowledge these issues and take steps to address them. In 2018, the South Korean government introduced a 52-hour workweek, a major step towards reducing overwork and improving work-life balance.

Moreover, younger generations are challenging traditional work norms. The "YOLO" (You Only Live Once) mindset is becoming more prevalent among younger Koreans, reflecting a shift in societal values towards prioritizing work-life balance and personal well-being, as reported by Korea JoongAng Daily.

It's also worth mentioning that Korea's society is now more open to foreign workers than ever. The government has introduced various programs and initiatives to attract foreign talent, including scholarships for international students, internship opportunities, and support services to help foreigners settle into Korean life.

In conclusion, while Korea's work culture may pose certain challenges, the nation is undeniably moving towards a more balanced and inclusive work environment. As a foreigner in Korea, it's been a privilege to witness this transformation first-hand and be a part of this vibrant and evolving society.

About the author
Sasha Smirnova

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