[Column] The VUCA era requires new social systems

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[Column] The VUCA era requires new social systems

Yeom Jae-ho

The author is an emeritus professor and former president of Korea University.

We’re almost past the first month of 2023. As it begins its second year, the Yoon Suk Yeol administration must grab the opportunity to help the country take another leap forward. We are living in the age of VUCA, an acronym for “volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.” In the 21st century, civilization has been evolving in a clearly different direction from the past century. Just as the printing press triggered the Reformation and Renaissance, the digital transition is rapidly changing civilization. If our social system is stuck in a 20th century framework, drastic changes will undoubtedly feel volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and thus hardly comprehensible.

The Yoon administration’s pillar agenda items are labor, education and pension reforms. A bipartisan group has been created to map out political reform, including the revamping of our electoral system. We may finally replace the aged political system of 1987 ahead of the parliamentary elections in April of next year. Politics lost long ago the arts of principle and restraint due to the predominance of ideological, self-serving and winner-take-all practices. The mechanism of checks and balances intended by the separation of powers has been replaced by the politics of factionalism and cults of personality. Without political reform, Korea faces a gloomy future.

An overhaul of the social system is necessary if we are to survive the VUCA era. To establish a new system for the future, social consensus should be achieved through a battle against mainstream resistance.

The rapid advance in science and technology sparked by the Industrial Revolution was behind the scientific systematization of the social system in the 20th century. The microscopic method of dividing and specializing work gave rise to the mass production system to enable scientific management. The focus of life also shifted from the home to the factory. As factory workers increased, office jobs also multiplied to help manage them. Labor was tracked by hours and rewarded with hourly wages. Labor unions surfaced to mediate the asymmetric relationship between workers and employers, this establishing the labor system of the 20th century. But the nature of work has changed greatly in the 21st century. The rigid labor conditions of the past — such as full-time workers, seniority-based pay and life-time jobs — all face serious challenges in terms of efficiency.

Education is no different. In the 20th century, education was tailored for mass-production. Instead of learning from hands-on experience, students were mechanically taught in large lecture rooms for rote learning like a parrot. Classroom knowledge was put to use for 30 years until retirement. This is how the 20th century education and job systems worked. But now, repetitive tasks requiring simple knowledge are better done by computers. Nearly 85 percent of jobs from the 20th century could disappear. Education that relies on top-down teaching methods no longer applies.

The pension system is also a 20th century by-product to ensure the elderly live comfortably after retirement. But last century’s design cannot work in an age when births are rare and life expectancy has risen from 70 to 100. The depletion of our pension fund must be addressed by introducing company pensions currently available in Germany.

Companies now prioritize creative ideas and collaboration over the rigid rules and guidelines of the 20th century. Multinationals evaluate their employees by the quality of work rather than the hours they work. Working from home and flextime have become the new norm. According to “No Rules Rules,” by Netflix founder Reed Hastings and Insead professor Erin Meyer, the global streaming giant has removed all bureaucratic conventions in managing employees to boost worker autonomy. Employees can choose their work hours and breaks. Instead of managing a large workforce, Hastings values so-called “talent density” by recognizing all employees as professionals, judging them by their creative ideas and results rather than where and how much they work.

Korean companies have started to recall employees who were working from home during the pandemic. That’s because they might prefer managing employees on an hourly basis and instructing them face-to-face. That managers adhere to a 20th century-style supervisory role while being paid better than other employees is a problem. This is an age of professionals who voluntarily do what they like and are judged by the results.

The social system of the 20th century must be radically revamped for a genuinely advanced society. The government and enterprises need to realign their social systems to fit the 21st century. We must embrace the epochal changes.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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