Generational jargon is a must for navigating the workplace
Employees in their 30s and 40s tend to be stressed and overlooked in the workplace, sandwiched between the young and the old.
“We’re neither millennials nor Gen Zs – we have to go on drinking binges with our bosses, overwork and get assigned to exhausting outside duties no different than older employees,” said a manager in his late 30s working for a mid-sized company.
Koreans born between the mid-70s and mid-80s are often called forgotten middle children. They tend to be neglected by society as companies and politicians scramble to please the young.
The term millennial was coined by William Strauss in his book “Generations: The History of America's Future” and refers to people born between the early 1980s and the 2000s. The term Gen Z was first coined by Western scholars and refers to people born between 1996 and 2010.
Korea has developed its own jargon.
Korea’s millennials are those born in between 1985 and 1996 and Gen Zers are people born between 1997 and the early 2010s. In the United States, Gen Xers are people born between 1965 and 1980. But in Korea, those born 1975 to 1984 are grouped as Gen X, according to Cho Young-tae, a population research professor at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Health.
Korea’s Gen Xers were brought up in similar ways. Most attended gukmin hakgyo, the old for name elementary schools, and went through both the financial crisis of 1997 and the global economic crisis in 2008.
“Millennials are the first generation to receive unsparing support from their parents regarding education, employment and marriage, making them more self-centered than others,” said Cho. “For instance, Gen Xers tend to hold back even when they are mistreated by their company, but millennials don’t hesitate to walk out.”
Having to maintain a balance between the young and old, Gen X are mentally and physically burdened. With more companies restructuring, they have to take the role of a coach, assuming most of the work but also having to manage employees.
Those born in the 70s now in upper management are mainly concerned about leading their teams. Their previous bosses were more focused on managing teams rather than being on the front line of business. But with companies downsizing their workforce, things are a bit different.
“During my company’s leadership training session, we were told not to do all the work by ourselves but encourage the team to take on responsibilities,” said a manager working at an electronics firm. “But with a small team of three people, it’s hard to achieve any satisfactory results.”
Those born in the 80s express discontent about not being given leadership roles at all.
“I thought I would be assigned important roles after I got promoted, but I’m doing the same tasks I did when I was an assistant manager,” said a 37-year-old employee at a retail company. “I’m constantly assigned the trivial roles given to new employees because there are no new recruits. I’m worried that it might be a drag on my career.”
The two sub-groups have different views on kkondae. Kkondae is a Korean term referring to stubborn or condescending, mostly older, people.
For 70s-born employees, they feel they’re caught in the middle between patronizing high-ranking executives and young employees.
“High-ranking executives are careful around the younger employees – they know that swearing or aggressively talking to them is a direct ticket to disciplinary action,” said a 45-year-old senior manager working at a large company. “The executives then turn to us to control their anger.”
But those born in the 70s are another source of stress for those born in the 80s.
"People born in the 70s are extra careful towards young employees, giving them a free pass because they’re considered different and young," according to a 38-year-old employee of a financial services company. “They too act condescending to us because in our generation, the hierarchical structure based on age differences still exists.”
Despite some differences, both share the same sense of alienation and ill-treatment.
“People in their 20s say they don’t have jobs, but we also don’t have anywhere to go,” said a senior manager working for a large company. “We’re neglected by our company because we’re old and switching jobs is hard at this age. Our juniors also shrug us aside, labeling us as kkondaes.”
Companies are considering ways to motivate and help them feel more included.
“Gen X people have the characteristics of both baby boomers and millennials but associate themselves closer to the millennials,” said Lee Eun-hyung, a professor at Kookmin University’s College of Business Administration.
Due to those characteristics, they’re the ones who can change Korea’s hierarchical workforce culture and bring out the potential in young employees, according to Lee.
The most practical solution is to change in how Gen Xers are perceived. Many employees said they wanted to receive recognition at work rather than getting a salary increase or a promotion.
“It’s important that the company keeps emphasizing that they’ve come so far due to the employees, recognizing their work and indicating that they’re willing to support career growth,” said Professor Lee. “It’s crucial that middle managers, the key personnel, establish confidence and strengthen their work identity.”
BY LEE SO-AH [email@example.com]