Why young South Koreans struggle to be happy: The ominous intersections of traditional culture and modern development

Thirty-six-year old Lee Kyoung-ja married 39 year-old Cho Hyuk-jin — both natives of South Korea — in the fall of 2015. They relocated to Vietnam a few months later without a concrete plan for work. On the surface, their decision was shocking. Kyoung-ja, my close friend from my four years living in Korea and the MC at my wedding, was a voice actress. She had consistent, well-paid work, and her new husband was a successful television commercial producer at Samsung.

Both Kyoung-ja and her husband Hyuk-jin were able to fulfill both their parents’ and Korean society’s expectations of holding down respectable jobs that would allow them to raise a family and support their parents in retirement. Additionally, South Korea had developed fully within their lifetimes. They had directly experienced the benefits from the nation’s economic development, living much richer than their grandparents could have imagined. However, the newly-weds left an ultra-modern nation with a high per capita GDP for one still aspiring to develop to South Korea-like heights.

If you dig beyond their resumés and the checklist of societal expectations they could satisfy, however, it’s easy to understand why they left Korea. Statistically, Koreans as a whole rank lower in happiness than most OECD nations. Korea’s suicide rate increased 100% from 2000 to 2011. Currently, the suicide rate is extremely high at 24.7 per 100,000, compared with 10.1 in the United States. Vietnam, Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin’s destination, has an even lower suicide rate of 5.06. Many Koreans in their 20s and 30s mirror the general trend of the nation. The reasons for this society-wide unhappiness are exactly what drove Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin to leave. The same reasons also challenge a commonly held view in the West that greater economic development and higher incomes are themselves unquestionably worthy goals.

An Instructive Anecdote  

Hyuk-jin nearly died from working too hard at Samsung. Death from overwork is such a common occurrence that there is a Korean word for it: kwa-lo-sa. He regularly worked 12-16 hour days plus weekends. Combined with frequent obligatory late night dinners and drinking sessions with co-workers, his body literally broke down.

After weeks in the hospital, the doctor gave him a stern warning: “[If you] go back to your job, you will die. Quit, find new work, and you have a very good chance at a full recovery.” As you can see from the picture of him right after he was released from the hospital, it is frightening how old and frail someone in their late-30s can look. He followed the doctor’s orders and quit.

Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin met through mutual friends. They began dating during his recovery. When he told his company he would quit, citing health reasons, his supervisors applied maximum pressure to convince him to stay. Kyoung-ja saw this as “a total lack of respect for Hyuk-jin’s health. I encouraged him to find a new career elsewhere.”

As Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin’s romance blossomed, ultimately the couple decided to wed.  Married life in Korea, however, seemed unappealing.

Long-term in Korea, the expectations they would have to fulfill as a married couple looked increasingly difficult.

Hyuk-jin’s steady freelance work did not match the cost of living and working in Korea in the long-term. Working full-time at a large media company appeared necessary. After his near-death experience, however, he was skeptical about subjecting himself again to the 12-plus hour days and nights of drinking with colleagues that had obviously been a very unhealthy lifestyle.

Moreover, as in many cultures, couples are faced with questions about “when” they are going to get married and “when” they are going to have children. While enjoying their new partnership, the newlyweds did not want to deal with this additional pressure.

Personal questions often extend beyond just the topic of marriage and procreating. Koreans commonly discuss salaries, job levels and even shortcomings of one’s physical characteristics — not just among friends, but also among common acquaintances and co-workers. The expectations of a so-called “proper life” and the willingness of others to openly question non-conformity, whether it comes from family or society as a whole, wore thin on their patience.

Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin may be viewed as an extreme case since after Hyuk-jin almost died of overwork they actually left the country. However, significant discontent, due to similar reasons of overwork and cultural expectations, is a common theme among younger Koreans with whom I have spoken and a major source of unhappiness.

Korea is unquestionably a modern, rich nation that went from being one of the poorest to richest nations in the last half-century. However, while examining Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin’s experiences, along with those of others discussed below and its shocking statistics, one can conclude that Korea is not a happier and healthier nation. Given the combination of a modern, developed capitalistic society, traditional Korean expectations from the family and a highly hierarchal work culture, the general lack of happiness and high suicide rate is not shocking. Korea’s experience is a cautionary tale for those who praise economic development as the be-all-end-all, and demonstrates that the human toll in pursuit of success may ultimately not be worth the struggle.

Work as Life – And Death

As evident from Hyuk-jin’s example, work at a Korean firm is an unpleasant experience for many. Twelve-hour days are often the norm, and a 12-hour workday without the expectation of last minute extra work is seen as a luxury. In my recent visit to Seoul, I stayed with a newly married couple. The husband worked at a bank from 7:30 am to 7:30 pm. Because he was able to leave work exactly at 7:30 most days, his wife emphasized this as a perk. For many other Koreans, though, extra work time is expected without advance warning. On the same visit to Seoul, I went out on a Saturday night to a vintage Korean fried chicken joint with a good friend, Samsung employee Kim Gi-hyeon. That Saturday, his boss called him to be at the office by noon on Sunday for what he guessed would be a full afternoon of work.

Gi-hyeon emphasized that this was not an isolated case. What I, an American, consider personal time – weekends, weeknights – was only personal time for Korean firm’s employees if the firm did not have work to be done. At dinner that night was another friend, Chris Thompson who is an American working at a chaebol (large Korean firm). He said deadlines have a tendency to be both swift and non-negotiable. An 8 pm deadline could be handed down at 4 pm for a substantial project, and refusal or inability to meet said deadline for any reason (family reasons included) was out of the question.On top of this lack of acknowledgment of the need for personal time, as Hyuk-jin’s experience illuminates, there is a widespread cultural expectation that Koreans will engage in after-hours drinking with their bosses, even on weeknights. According to every Korean company worker with whom I spoke, refusal to participate in after-hours drinking is not a realistic option as it would lead to termination. This expectation of after-hours drinking further takes away from the chance at having a personal life and creates further exhaustion.

While the prospect of consistently working long hours may not be a bad thing if one’s work is your passion, for many Koreans I spoke with the work they chose had little to do with their passion. Rather the salary, status, and/or job security of a profession primarily determined one’s career choice.

Work as Stability and Status First

While devouring a plate of crispy fried chicken and cold draft beer, this happy scene was contrasted with my friend Gi-hyeon’s description of his work as “machine-like, uninteresting, and boring.” However, Samsung jobs are some of the most coveted jobs in Korea. They offer both a good salary and great prestige, both societally and in the eyes of his parents. As he stated, “It was my parents’ dream that I work at Samsung, and now I have fulfilled their dream.” As my friend Hyejung, married in her late-30s with a child said, “My parents’ generation brags about their kids’ success because it’s higher than their own, and they can escape the complex of having grown up poor. While my generation didn’t grow up poor, the same mentality of hoping for success from your kids is still there, no doubt passed down from previous generations.” The traditional Korean expectation of pleasing one’s parents in advance of personal goals, combined with modern expectations of working at a prestigious company in a white-collar job, is a major determining factor in many career choices.

Many Koreans inevitably end up fulfilling expectations rather than following their own passions. In fact, according to a recent article in the Korean language press, young Koreans are moving abroad in higher numbers to pursue occupations like blue-collar trades that are looked down upon in Korea. As a young Korean stated in the article, going abroad was a way to work in a non-white collar trade and avoid the disdain with which blue-collar work is viewed in Korea.

Many Koreans also put stability ahead of finding passion in work. This can be easily seen in the rise of popularity in becoming a government worker. After college, I lived in Korea for four years and worked at a Korean high school as an English instructor. Being a full-time, permanent teacher in Korea is extremely competitive because, as a government worker, the status is high and you are guaranteed lifetime employment and a solid pension in retirement.

As such, while some teachers in Korea genuinely enjoyed children, many did not. Even among those that did, the top reason for becoming a teacher was most often the status and security. As one colleague stated, “No other job gives you the status and guaranteed income for life that a teacher does.” Additionally, job security for life means government workers do not have to engage in the late-night drinking present in most Korean companies. As such, it is possible to work and raise a family at the same time (government workers also have the option of generous parental leave if requested).

Fulfilling Expectations through Education

The desire for stability, status, and long-term earning potential over genuine interest in one’s work can be seen partly as a result of the expectations that parents place on their children from a very young age to get into an elite college and work at one of Korea’s chaebols (like Samsung, LG, or Hyundai). When asked why parents focus on such a narrow path that is not realistic for even a majority of the population to follow, given limited spots in government and chaebols, my above-mentioned friend Hyejung (late-30s, mother of one) stated, “Mothers are worried about their children’s future if they don’t get into a chaebol. Koreans do not honor and support small and medium-sized businesses. As such, the only secure, viable option is seen as a large company, or short of that, being a government worker.” (Note that for many women from top universities I spoke with, being a government worker was preferable to working at a company, given the benefits noted above.)

Statistically, given the emphasis on working at large companies or in government, start-ups are limited and it has prompted the government to take measures to try and foster them.

Moreover, given the hyper-competitiveness of Korea’s education system and the focus on only a few acceptable career paths, the cultivation of natural curiosities takes a back seat to prepping for the Korean college entrance exam, which is the largest single determinant of where one goes to college (and by extension, seen as the determinant of one’s chances at getting a top job).For example, Chang Yeon-so, a 35 year-old English teacher at a private academy stated that her job is to drill English grammar into students so they can do well on the English portion of the entrance exam. The English portion does not test students’ communication skills. Instead, it emphasizes multiple-choice questions regarding grammatical structures. (English is one of the four major subjects on the exam.) A student of Yeon-so’s had just returned from a year in Canada and has a strong interest and ability in speaking English. However, the student was suddenly being drilled in arcane English grammar rules that are little known to native speakers themselves. Over a traditional Korean dinner of bean-paste soup and delicious side dishes, Yeon-so lamented that, “I feel so bad drilling this kid. This must kill her enthusiasm and interest for the subject. Unfortunately, at the end of the day we just have to teach to the test.”

The lack of interest in the subjects taught in education, and seeing education as simply a means to fulfill personal, parental, and societal expectations, is again illustrated in my aforementioned American friend Chris Thompson’s experience working at a chaebol. Most of his co-workers are graduates of Korea’s top universities, but in order to go to these top universities they took slots in majors in which they had no interest or practical need for the material taught. When applying for university, students apply to both a university and a department within a university. If a student is set on working at a large firm, they need to go to a top university. However, that university’s business school may not have slots. As such, according to Chris, a student may major in German literature without the slightest interest in the subject. As a graduate of a top university, though, a path exists to a top company and the fulfillment of the aforementioned expectations.

The Comparison Burden – Better Left Unsaid but Said Anyways

Even when they accomplish modest success, or work toward success, the nosiness of others and parental reminders of one’s shortcomings haunt younger Koreans. For instance, during a recent trip to Korea I had dinner with my in-laws and their friends. Their friends brought along their 26-year old son who was studying to become a government worker (a very competitive job, as noted above). At first, the son was reticent about coming. He felt ashamed at not having a steady job yet and was wary of that coming up in conversation. While he ended up coming, he was clearly not happy when his father said to him, “If you had only studied a little harder you could have gone to Seoul National University [the top university in Korea].” This kind of comment is not an uncommon one.

Korean students are openly ranked based on test scores in their homeroom classes, leading to very public success, failure, and comparisons between students.

Comparing and critiquing shortcomings of others does not stop once Koreans finish school. Hyejung, the mother of one in her late-30s who discussed parental expectations with me previously, said that in her group of neighborhood ajummas (married women) it was very common to be asked by other ajummas – both those she was acquainted with and those she was not – where her husband worked as a way of sizing up her social status. I too was asked regularly the occupations of my parents – and, having a father who is a doctor and mother who is a lawyer – I was always met with approving glances. I always thought, though, how frustrating it would be to have to answer, time and again, that your parents had jobs not seen as high status. Kyoung-ja’s husband Hyuk-jin himself did not want to time and again have to answer why he left his role as a producer at prestigious Samsung.

Questions regarding family decisions, like marriage and children, are also common and equally irksome to many young Koreans. The previously mentioned English teacher Chang Yeon-so recently married. On a trip to Seoul, she and another recently-married friend discussed how happy they were to just have married. In their words, they had taken care of a critical piece of “homework” and thankfully would no longer would be asked constantly about when they would marry. Yeon-so is now faced with the frustrating question from co-workers and family of when she will have kids with the assumption being that she will, of course, have them.

Equally unsettling to many younger Koreans is the way their physical shortcomings are openly critiqued. In our most recent visit to Korea, on three separate occasions my wife was told by different relatives that she had gained weight. I remember distinctly being told by a co-worker in Korea once I was unattractive because I was bald. No wonder younger Koreans have a very high rate of plastic surgery, low measures of happiness, and Kyoung-ja, Hyuk-jin and others have moved abroad. Part of fulfilling the expectations of others is not only marrying who others deem acceptable, but also changing your physical appearance.

Success is in the Eye of the Beholder

The extreme irony from Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin’s leaving Korea is that they are going to a nation economically much poorer than their own. While they have savings from their well-paying jobs in Korea, which will take them far in Vietnam, long-term earning prospects are much lower in Vietnam. They are in essence erasing Korea’s gains made in their lifetimes. Vietnam’s economy and average incomes are like those of South Korea 30 or 40 years ago. The case of Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin, the other examples discussed above, and the jarring suicide statistics belie the notion that material progress equals greater societal happiness. It challenges an assumption held by many in the West that economic development in and of itself is a worthwhile, universally positive goal.

Not all developing nations are the same and it is possible that countries with different cultures will be able to develop economically like Korea while maintaining the happiness and mental health of their citizens. The Korean example is, however, a clear case of traditional Korean expectations working in tandem with a newly developed, hyper-competitive capitalistic economy to create a scary combination.

Ultimately, it is impossible to say that living in the Korea of fifty years ago would necessarily make more Koreans happy – day-to-day existence was very tough for many. It is a hypothetical question. The perils of the Korean example, however, are worth considering for countries like Vietnam, China, and others currently undergoing rapid economic development.

The pressures of fulfilling expectations and traditions in a modern, hyper-competitive capitalist society all while not deriving satisfaction from your work is without a doubt the combination that drives many younger Koreans towards unhappiness, suicide, or out of the country like Kyoung-ja and Hyuk-jin. It remains to be seen how many more young adult-age Koreans will turn their backs on traditional expectations and easily quantifiable notions of economic success in exchange for a less concrete, less certain, but certainly less constraining and much freer existence.