[Viewpoint] Self-imposed pressure cooker society

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[Viewpoint] Self-imposed pressure cooker society

The recent Kaist suicides have stimulated a great deal of Korean soul searching, marked by remarkably very minor resolution as to what may be done to resolve the situation. It really reminds me of the saying, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

The obvious conclusion is that Korea has become an overly competitive society. The latest, competitive standards continue to outpace the opportunities for individual improvement. In fact, it seems the wealthier Korea becomes, the greater the competition. Korea’s increased wealth tends to concentrate in fewer hands while the overall education and sophistication of the masses expands.

To be fair, Korea is not alone in this increasing economic imbalance, but Koreans psychologically suffer more than most nations. It’s not surprising that Korea has one of the highest suicide rates worldwide.

That may surprise many foreigners. Most Westerners assume that the Japanese are the world leaders in suicide but that is not so. While the Japanese suicide rate is high, the Japanese may have inadvertently found social ways to control the pressure from reaching Korean levels.

Turning back to Kaist, we may be seeing all of this at play, where students and even faculty are finding incredible peer pressure without recourse to find some kind of pressure safety valve comparable to those found in Japan. Of course it is unreasonable to expect Koreans to try to act like Japanese but the Japanese may offer a plausible solution. That is, the Japanese more readily accept many more ways and roles in society as being honorable and even highly respected.

For example, there are many Japanese families running specialty stores or creating traditional crafts dating back several generations. In other words, small entrepreneurs can enjoy respect and status in their communities based partially on income but also how well they contribute to their communities.

All of which leads me to another, related comparison of Japan with Korea. While the Japanese share the same regard for the similar elite careers in their society - senior government bureaucrats, major corporate executives, professionals such as professors, lawyers and physicians - they also sincerely honor a wider array of lesser roles in society. And by honor, I don’t mean regarding many other professions as runner-up careers.

Rather, these other roles are accepted, and sometimes admired, as alternative lifestyles.

Particularly since the 1990s, young Japanese have re-evaluated what it means to be successful and many have come to eschew the traditional career paths as being too narrow, too competitive and not particularly rewarding in terms of being meaningful to many modern Japanese.

While we have seen some hints of the same in Korea, by contrast we have seen virtually nothing of the like among most young Koreans. Perhaps this is because traditional family pressures remain remarkably unrelenting here, compared to Japan.

While Japanese individuals, too, see them representing the family as well as themselves, the family identity has weakened a great deal during the past generation. As a result, family pressures, though at times high, have weakened over the past three decades.

In some ways, Koreans are still behaving as citizens of a country on the cusp of becoming a developed economy - even when that milestone has already been achieved. Old habits and insecurities die slowly.

In fact, with increased wealth, college graduation has become a given for most young Koreans. Consequently, there are relatively fewer slots to enter Korean ministries, to become a licensed professional or to enter top corporations. Start-up entrepreneurs are too rarely young, ambitious people.

More common are new businesses started by wives and middle-aged men needing to start second careers. The imbalance among the young between education outputs and employment inputs, first noticeable in the 1980s, continues to grow with each passing year. All of this leads to many highly educated, but unemployed young people.

There has been a lot of talk by President Lee Myung-bak to foster small- and medium-sized enterprises. So far, the fruits of these efforts have been minimal. While some people may blame the policies, I suspect the greater problem lies with this society’s overly narrow definition of success.

It is obvious that too many people are desperately trying to climb the status ladder in a society that too narrowly defines success.

Greater appreciation and recognition needs to be more widely applied so that more people can be genuinely satisfied with their contributions to the community.

The government and the media need to highlight and even glorify the intrinsic contributions of a wider array of jobs and roles in this society. Otherwise, Korea’s social pressure cooker will only increase in demands on the young, leading to yet more tragedies as we have witnessed at Kaist.

*The writer is president of Soft Landing Consulting in Seoul.

By Tom Coyner
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