[Viewpoint]It’s time for flexible work hoursA few days ago, the British government announced a plan to expand the flexible working hours available for parents with children under the age of 18 to enable them to better accommodate their family lives. Because both parents are increasingly working for a living these days, the government is trying to create a society in which citizens can balance both work and family.
In various surveys, more than 70 percent of respondents said they would like their spouses to work. That percentage is even higher among the younger generations.
Most students I teach at my university want their spouses to work. Interestingly, more men prefer that their wives work. They seem to believe that supporting their families solely with their incomes would be difficult.
However, Korean society does not always react positively toward families in which both parents work. While these families can earn more money and become better off financially, at the same time, they seem to be lacking something in childcare. Some might envy the financial merit of such a type of family, but it poses certain problems.
Time is the most important thing to families with working parents. Because both parents have to work, they hardly have enough time for their families and themselves. Families with young children, in particular, constantly struggle from a lack of time. They say they are pressured to spend time with their families while living in a culture that emphasizes overwork.
Recently, I conducted research comparing 25 European Union member nations with Seoul. Two times more Seoulites than EU members said they feel like they do not have enough time.
While only 25 percent of the employed male and female respondents from the 25 EU member countries said they felt they did not have enough time to spend with their families in 2003, 68.8 percent of Seoulites responded that way.
One of the main reasons is the number of work hours. The average working hours in the European Union in 2006 was 38.7 hours a week, but Koreans work at least 10 hours more.
When you work more hours, you naturally have less time for yourself and your family. That is why I think there is a need to reorganize the total number of hours that society works. The best way is to shorten the work hours. However, it is also important to make work hours more productive as we reduce the amount of labor.
Adjusting the number of work hours to spend more time with the family is a win-win strategy that minimizes social costs while saving workers from chronic shortage of time. The government should promote the flexible working system as a policy. Under this system, the total number of work hours can be determined for a certain pay period, and a worker can freely choose a certain time frame to begin and end the work. The flexible work-hour system began in Germany in the late 1960s, and most European countries allow their citizens to work flexible hours. In Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands, more than 30 percent of laborers work under this system.
The British government revised its employment law in 2003 and has been expanding the flexible working hours available. You can have a contract for a total number of working hours for a year, not for a week, and it can be based on an agreed number of working hours.
Also, you can have a contract for compressed hours, which allows you to work the total number of agreed hours over a shorter period. For example, you work four days a week to do the amount usually done in five days. The flexible working system offers various arrangements. Two workers can share one full-time job and parents can take an unpaid vacation during children’s school breaks. You can work shorter work hours for a certain period of time, then go back to the regular schedule.
The flexible work-hour system lowers the rate of absence, and elevates the satisfaction of the workers, which leads to more job loyalty and better performance. Koreans work more hours than any other Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development member countries.
More than any other society, Korea desperately needs the flexible work-hour system.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Hallym University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
by Shin Kyung-ah