Under Pressure: High Stress in Korean Society

There is a tendency among many expats to align themselves along an us-vs-them axis in South Korea. That is to say that many members of the foreign community (typically teachers or soldiers) feel that they are the “normal” people living in a strange and illogical society. Expats often don’t understand why Koreans are the way they are here, and a lot of the time they don’t really want to find out.

I’m no expert on the intricacies of Korean society, but I feel that when living in someone else’s country there is a responsibility to take the time to answer these sorts of questions, rather than simply dismissing an entire culture as being nonsensical or weird.

So I started asking questions and conducting interviews – sometimes with friends, sometimes with co-workers, and sometimes with people I barely know – to try and get a more personal kind of insight into what makes this society tick. The first such issue I have begun to explore is that of pressure.

Korea is notorious for being one of the most faced paced, stressful, and high pressure environments on the planet – and I want to know what that means for average citizens. Over the course of 20+ interviews, I am trying to find out the answers to some basic questions: Where does the pressure come from? How does it affect people’s lives? Is there a solution?

Those interviewed are of varied backgrounds. They have different jobs, they are different ages, and they (for the most part) don’t know each other. Hopefully some common themes will emerge so people can begin to understand rather than simply shaking their heads and muttering “crazy Koreans”.

Note: None of these people speak English as a first language. They are of varying English proficiency levels from beginner to very advanced and in some cases translation was needed. To improve readability and cohesiveness, some gramatical edits have been made where necessary. In no way has meaning or context been altered.

Hwang In-Gi, 27 – Ph.D Candidate

Hwang In-Gi, 27

What Causes Pressure in Korean Society?

Making money is the biggest problem. Compared to the money we usually spend, the money we make is not that much.

In Australia, even old people can get a job easily. Wal-Mart is a good example. They hire old people; even some of them are working in wheelchairs or something. In Korea it never happens. Once you get old, once your physical abilities are going down, it means that you are not able to make any more money. It means that you will be abandoned in society. And they are afraid of that. Korea is one of the most difficult countries to get a job once you reach your 50’s. Even if you are really eager to work, you can’t. How you look doesn’t really matter, it’s only about your age.

Compared to the States, we don’t have well-established pension plan, and many people are worried about that. The government is currently guaranteeing a very small pension, and the age for retirement is getting younger – they usually get fired when they reach 50, compared to Japan, where people usually retire in their late 60s or something. My uncle, he used to work for Samsung, and of course he made lots of money while he was working there. But he kind of got fired when he turned 52. Because he was old.

We need some kind of social system. I mean, in Australia, as long as you have the will to keep working, the company is not able to fire you unless you are a very naughty worker. But here, the CEO or whoever owns the company, they have a right to fire you anytime they want. They do this because they don’t want to pay more. Lets say this: with the amount of money they pay for one manager, they can hire four new young people.

Usually a manager at a company like LG would get paid 4.2 million won (about $3800), and a worker with two years experience would usually get paid 2.2 million. The efficiency of one manager is not as good as two young people. The company wants new people. It’s kind of a stereotype, but Korean people believe that younger people’s minds are new and fresh and flexible. On the other hand, old people do not want to change. We are living in a world where the need to change and adapt to new environments is very important, and they think old people can’t really do that.

 What Causes Pressure for You Personally?

For now, I’m 27, I just need to cover myself – no wife or kids – so I’m not really worrying about many things. But as soon as I get married and have a kid then I will feel like my Dad. We spend almost $800 000 – that is the amount of money we need to raise a kid. It is considered normal to pay for our children’s tuitions fees, even in university, and that is what my mom did. So she covered me until I got my bachelor’s degree.

Now the pressure comes from the money I need to get married. I need $100 000 to get married, usually. Men are supposed to buy a house and women are supposed to fill it with up with some electronics or something. Usually men will pay more. But there is no way I can make that amount of money considering what I’m doing now. I’m a student and I’m making a very small amount of money at my work. I want to get married before I turn 31, which is not really possible financially. Mentally and physically I’m ready, but financially is the big problem. I can get married, but it will be super tricky unless my wife’s parents are super rich.

Is there a solution? When does the pressure stop?

When we are in the tiny place called the grave. Unless we have a very stable financial plan, such as a pension – which only [approximately] 12% of Korean people get.

The consumption of liquor is very high in Korea. That is why most of the office workers drink a lot. That is the way, by drinking, that they relieve their stress. That is the typical way Korean people escape. Temporarily.

A real solution will only come with time. We need a change in our system. We need to collect more tax from rich people, but the government is doing the opposite. Actually the government has been reducing tax for rich people so that they can spend more money, and they believe that is the only way to revive the dying economy. But once they start gathering more tax, people will not like it. People will not understand. We only collect 12%, but in other countries the tax is almost 30 or 32 percent of their income. That is how they are able to raise the quality of life. I would be willing to pay more tax if the government could come up with a good plan.



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