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Friday, June 24, 2016

The Tim Horton Exemption

“It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas and feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing on reason or mental health.” 

Expats and travelers fill cafes and squeeze into restaurant booths around the world. Their tales and opinions saturate the air like heavy particles hovering over the Beijing skyline. The local culture is dissected and diagnosed by these physicians certified by their wanderlust and sanctioned by the consensus of the group and the evening's rites.

Here in Korea, we might overhear talk of Koreans' driving foibles, or the nature of Korean marital dynamics where women invariably become the family CFO and take forceful and unequivocal command of all monetary matters. You can sometimes hear talk of the local disregard for minding litter, the conversation invariably drifting off to Japan by way of comparison. "You can't so much find a cigarette butt on the streets of Japan," someone will say. And yes, likely too will be the mention of the eating of dogs, an ignominious cultural artifact that is rarely practiced these days.

On the other side we have the cultural defenders, the sympathizers who, having done their homework, herd most of the naysayers back into their culturally insensitive corrals. A Peace Corps document from the early 1970s served to remind newly arrived U.S. volunteers of the foolishness of their cultural missteps: "Korea is generally judged to be a less than developed nation. This judgment is based on many factors, but mainly those dealing with economic or materialist measurements. In the field of education, and from a Korean viewpoint, it might be difficult to accept a less developed label. If you had produced movable block printing in the 12th century, a written phonetic alphabet before Columbus discovered America, and had revered education with intensity of almost religious fervor, then you might not consider yourself less developed with regard to education."

Well, touche! And we will graciously ignore your culturally insensitive comment about Columbus "discovering"America.

Sometimes, we just need to give these cultural-dialectic, this back and forth criticism and defensiveness, a free pass; a "Get out of jail free" card like in the board game, Monopoly. Instead of vitriol, allow the prevailing westerlies to do their thing and blow the smog out of Beijing naturally.

The other night I went out to dinner with three Canadian friends. The food, drink and conversation were awesome. Somehow (am I guilty?), the conversation turned to Tim Hortons, the ubiquitous coffee and pastry franchise that adorns nearly every intersection across that grand country. Canadians forever sing the praises of their beloved "Timmy's." As an American, who has driven hundreds of miles and many hours, craving coffee and something, anything, to eat, and finally seeing a Tim Horton's on the horizon, well, it was an ugly experience. I could have been had so easily. But alas, the coffee was nearly undrinkable and the donuts, literally a cardboard substitute. Here, let some closet Canadians speak for themselves:
"They just built a Tim Hortons in the Midwestern town where I live and I would rather eat a box of donuts that I found on the side of the road than ever return there."
"Tim's could sell poop on a stick and out of Canada loyalty, Canadians would still buy." 

But I smiled and kept my opinion to myself. My Canadian friends were happily adrift in their reverie for their national symbol. Going to "Timmy's" was like a religious experience for them. It was then that I realized I had needed to take out my Get out of Jail Free Card and figuratively hand it over to my Canadian friends. Why trespass on their cultural delusion? Was I going to judge Canada as being a less developed nation because of their blind faith toward Tim Horton's? Certainly not. After all, they have maple syrup and national health-care, don't they? And besides, when our most popular exports are McDonalds and Donald Trump, I have good reason to keep my tongue.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Aged-Out Korean Style

For an outsider, living here in the 1970s, it was hard to miss the pedestal they were placed upon. The elderly in Korea had earned their stripes; surviving the often brutal and dehumanizing Japanese occupation. Then came the unforgiving horror of the Korean War. If you made it to sixty you earned the privileges that society gladly bestowed on you: the respectful bows; the honorific language; for men, the long wispy beards; and for women, the convivial smoking in groups. People routinely fought to give up their seats in public buses for society's grandparents. But that was then...

…Having received the highest student evaluation scores, the three expat professors were invited to the Director's office. In a brief exchange, they received certificates of accomplishment,  a handshake from the Director and a few perfunctory words of congratulation. "I hope to see you three back here again next year," he said, "Continue with your great teaching." For one of the three professors, those comments felt a bit insensitive and incongruous. Having just earned the highest evaluation scores from students, he was being aged-out, forcibly retired. He wouldn't be teaching at his university next year. He was turning sixty-five.

In today's Korea, forced retirement based on age is systemic. As a result, just 3.7% of regular employees at medium and large companies are 55 or older. This, in a country where the life expectancy is pushing 82, one of the highest in the world.

Older Koreans on a public bus in 1974. Being "aged-out" is as common as kimchi and rice.

Being aged-out here is as common as kimchi and rice. A former colleague in the English Department, very popular with students, was recently let go because he had turned sixty-five. "It was awful," he said. "My popularity ratings were over 95% for nine years. I did extra work for the university, the school, and the department, all for 
no compensation. And, I have to leave?" he asked rhetorically.

Few folks who are aged-out take it personally. Most expats know the cultural expectations when they come to Korea and quickly learn how the guidelines are interpreted and implemented at their places of employment, usually universities. Korean natives are treated no differently, so it's not a matter of being treated inconsistently; age discrimination is institutionalized. To many though, it's more than frustrating or infuriating--it's hurting the economy and the society. In the light of day, it simply doesn't make much sense. The cultural context is unambiguous; Koreans are sent into retirement at age 50, 55, 60 or 65. In fact, new figures put the average retirement age at about 53. Younger workers are ushered into companies where they earn less, are willing to take orders, and are allegedly more flexible and more productive. But are most of these operating assumptions true?

Certainly young, fresh recruits are paid less. In South Korean firms, pay and position rise with seniority. But nearly all employers operate from the belief that productivity decreases with seniority. Over 57% of them cite “low adaptability to change” as a reason for not keeping older workers, according to the Korea Labor Institute, a government-funded think-tank. 

According to Thomas Klaassen of York University in Toronto, 
"Internationally, there is little evidence to suggest that older workers are less productive than younger ones,  Their underperformance in South Korea, if real, may be a self-fulfilling prophecy," he argues. "It could be the prospect of premature retirement that discourages older Koreans from investing in skills."

Two older gentlemen ride the subway.
Questioning their value in today's Korea?

Korean society is rapidly aging and its birthrate is in steep decline. In the late 1950s, Korean families averaged 5 children. Today, families average about 1 child. Additionally, and this should come as good news, as of 2013, the life expectancy for Koreans reached 81.9 years. A man or woman retiring at 53 still offers their country almost thirty years of productive life. But how Korea puts those still productive years to use, to fuel its once vibrant economy, is yet another question. 

Wall painting in Busan, Korea's 2nd largest city
There is much talk that new laws and guidelines will be implemented to change Korea's current "early retirement" practices. Time will tell if and when those promises result in real, systemic change. In the meantime, kicked off their pedestal, older Koreans, the very people whose blood, sweat and tears built their modern country, are sent off into the setting sun, neglected, forgotten and unrewarded.