We were off and running. The prompting question in my English conversation class went something like this: “Which national and local issues are you concerned about?”
Soon the class was discussing the acute stress levels in Korean society. "Why," I asked, "was stress so high in Korea?" One of my students shared his perspective. I am paraphrasing here…
"Professor, as children, our parents expect us to study all the time, day and night for years, so we can take the national admissions test and get into the best universities. Then we go to university and we study hard to get the best possible jobs in society. Then we work long hours in our jobs because it is necessary to make money to help our children and support our parents and because we know we will have to retire at an early age. Then we retire and it is a sad time."
It sounds almost too stereotypical and too cliché-ish to be true. Except it is.
|Can South Koreans feel secure when they are not competing?|
And while South Korean students are some of the best performing students in the world, they self-identify as the least happy students on an international study.
In an earlier blog post I discussed the remarkably consistent dissonance between the career dreams of Yeungnam University students that I interviewed and the expectations of their parents—most of whom wanted their children to work in large companies that would more likely ensure higher salaries and job security. I believe that this “expectation gap,” between parents and their college-aged students, can be found in many industrialized countries. What seems different in South Korea is both the intensity of the parental pressure and how universal the expectations are. Almost every student reported that their parents wanted them to work at Samsung, LG, or another giant Korean corporation, where the competition is fierce and the jobs are scarce.
A young woman, currently a student, who escaped from North Korea and had been studying in the U.S., was commenting on her observations while in Seoul. “Working hard,” said Park Ji Woo,” is definitely a good thing, but sometimes I feel like I am walking on thin ice because I am continuously told to work more, otherwise I would be the loser.”
She continued, “One thing, I have discovered is life in Seoul is much more difficult and stressful than in New York City. South Korea is a small country but it is incredibly strong. The secret is competition. Everyone competes with each other in order to attain their goals. They work so hard that they almost never go home before 10 PM during the workday.”
|When will the grueling pressure in Korean society reach a tipping point?|
By any measure of size, South Korea is indeed small--roughly the size of the state of Indiana in the U.S. But in terms of accomplishments, South Korea is anything but diminutive. On most global measures of productivity and industrial success, South Korea currently ranks somewhere in the top 20. The question is, will the grueling pressure and competition within Korean society reach a tipping point? Perhaps it already has.
Ms. Park noted “New York City is viewed as one of the most bustling and busy cities in the world,” yet "New Yorkers," she continued, "had more room to be relaxed and do whatever they wanted.” Can South Koreans feel secure when they are not competing? Will my students, and others like them throughout South Korea, when their hopes and dreams differ from those of their parents, be able to find their way to those dreams? Or, will Koreans, by their societal in-action, essentially be saying that they haven't got time for the pain?