A lifestyle revolutionFew people on earth work longer hours than Koreans. Civil servants, scholars, workers and students are all living busy lives, so why is Korean society so often paralyzed and the economy slowing down if people are working so strenuously?
Scholars are supposed to study, research and analyze. But life as a scholar in Korea does not allow enough time for that. In the United States and Europe, scholars live in college towns and focus on seminars, experiments, lectures, research and reading. But Korean scholars mostly live in Seoul and other major cities and are busy attending social functions, dinner outings and various meetings.
High-level government officials do not have enough time to analyze, discuss and plan policies. They have to attend various events and give speeches, appear at family events for friends and coworkers, and attend meetings where their presence is not very important. They also need to have dinners and drinks with lawmakers, reporters and representatives of various groups. Ministry officials who have to accompany their bosses to various events, the National Assembly and committees with documents and materials are also busy. Thus, major state policies are often designed and drafted by mid-level officials.
At this rate, it will be hard for Korean society to become a developed nation. Korea’s income level improved thanks to technologies imported from abroad and the labor-intensive, export-driven manufacturing sector. But the manufacturing industries are in jeopardy as China has caught up with lower wages yet similar levels of knowledge and technology — and even higher creativity.
The number of employers in the manufacturing sector has decreased by over 20 percent in the past 20 years. Workers released from the manufacturing sector have instead opened their own grocery stores, restaurants, cafes and real estate agencies, and the service industry has become saturated. Their actual income has been declining for the past two decades, and many of these businesses close down in less than three years, on average.
Korea’s knowledge-based services industries such as consulting, design, legal services, accounting, finance and software are far behind in international competition. In the past, progress in industrialization made the population move from less productive farming to more productive manufacturing, resulting in improved income distribution. However, in the last 20 years, the workforce has moved from more productive manufacturing to less productive services industries, aggravating income disparity.
For the Korean economy to become more advanced, we need to seek breakthroughs in high-tech manufacturing and productive knowledge-based services. But advancement in these industries is not possible without knowledge and technological development.
Rather than imitating existing knowledge and technologies, we need to have pioneering, creative knowledge. This pioneering, creative knowledge grows from research, analyses, experiments, meditation and discussions.
Our lifestyle, culture, practices and incentive structures need to change fundamentally. Rather than personal connection, people need to compete based on competency and expertise. When academic, regional and personal connections guarantee success, people will focus on them. The government, schools and companies should establish thorough job analyses as well as strict performance evaluations and personnel management. Getting into a top school, passing a national exam or joining a big corporation should not guarantee a seat in the establishment for life.
In order to become a developed nation, Korea’s elites need to have the kind of knowledge and expertise that the elites of the developed world have. But the latest OECD data shows that the quality of the workforce in Korea falls increasingly behind as they work more years after college compared to those in developed countries. Koreans work longer hours, but the work intensity is low. We are busy with irrelevant work and fail to accumulate human capital as professionals. Korea can only advance when people spend more time on professional training instead of attending breakfast meetings, family events for coworkers and dinner outings.
The Kim Young-ran antigraft law to be enforced from the end of September focuses on reducing unlawful solicitation and corruption by banning excessive gifts and hospitality. It may come with some negative impacts such as hurting related businesses and causing short-term deflation. But if the law’s implementation can start changing wrongful practices and our way of working and lifestyle, it will be the healthiest legislation for our future, more than any other law. I hope Koreans will help with the social campaign for a better future for all.
JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 8, Page 35
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
*The author is a professor of economics at Sogang University.