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South Koreans Increasingly Doubtful That Hard Work Pays Off

South Koreans Increasingly Doubtful That Hard Work Pays Off

by Steve Crabtree and Taek Lee
Chart: data points are described in article

South Koreans' failing belief in the value of hard work in recent years could hurt efforts to motivate workers in a country currently struggling with low employee engagement and productivity. Since peaking at 73% in 2010, the percentage of South Koreans who feel people in their country can get ahead by working hard has drifted steadily downward. Less than half (47%) now feel this way. Further, South Koreans are now just as likely to disagree with this statement as they are to agree with it.


According to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea's gross domestic product per hour worked was $31 in 2015 -- about half that of the OECD's more productive members, including the U.S. Employees in South Korea tend to put in longer hours than those in most other OECD member countries but generate less value.

A shortage of good job opportunities for young people may play a role in many South Koreans' current lack of optimism about work. Residents aged 15 to 29 are particularly likely to have lost the conviction that it is possible to get ahead by working hard -- just 36% felt this way in 2017, versus 51% of South Koreans aged 30 and older. Youth unemployment reached a record-high annual rate of 9.9% in 2017, as one in five South Korean adults younger than 30 (21%) said it was a good time to find a job in their area.

Economists have pointed to rigidities in South Korea's labor market as a drag on job creation in the country. The traditional system emphasizes stable (often lifelong) employment and remuneration based on seniority -- attributes that helped large conglomerates maintain high levels of employee loyalty as they led the country's rapid industrialization beginning in the 1960s. However, these characteristics are increasingly seen as a hindrance amid social and technological changes that require a greater focus on flexibility and continual development.

Despite Willingness to Put in Long Hours, South Koreans Are Not Engaged at Work

Rigidity within the country's organizations may also be dampening employees' motivation and productivity. As discussed in Gallup's recent State of the Global Workplace report, the country's workforce -- like others in East Asia -- is characterized by a low level of employee engagement. The report presents findings from a set of workplace engagement questions asked of employed adults in 155 countries. Results from South Korea indicate that just 7% of employees are engaged -- that is, highly involved in and enthusiastic about their jobs. Further, a relatively high 26% of South Korean employees are actively disengaged -- in other words, they are openly resentful that their workplace needs aren't being met.


South Korean employees' engagement level is strongly related to their view of the value of hard work. Sixty percent of those who are engaged in their jobs say it is possible to get ahead in the country by working hard -- but this falls to 45% among those who are not engaged and to 30% among those who are actively disengaged.


Overall, South Korean workers fall below the global average on every indicator of employee engagement -- but especially with regard to their agreement that "At work, my opinions seem to count." Such findings may be increasingly problematic. Amid the rapid-fire disruptions brought about by digitization and market globalization, many companies -- particularly in the high-tech industries so important to the South Korean economy -- are being forced to manage an unprecedented pace of change. Agility and flexibility have become more important priorities for business success.

But the organizational changes needed to meet these new priorities can be difficult to implement if it means disrupting existing power structures and long-standing cultural tendencies. In South Korea, rigidly hierarchical management systems remain common, slowing the move toward nimbler, team-based structures that are better configured for efficiency and customer-centricity. Though these seniority-based systems are well-aligned with a Korean mindset that emphasizes respect for elders, they increasingly lead millennial employees -- many of whom have attended college abroad -- to feel that their hard work does not necessarily lead to greater influence and better opportunities in their organizations.

To the extent that employees feel they lack a voice in decisions that influence their work, they are less likely to be emotionally invested in it. Though they may continue to meet the cultural expectation of spending long hours in the office, their lack of engagement -- coupled with the rising suspicion among many that working harder will not help them get ahead -- implies those hours could be far more productive.

Learn more about Gallup's global workforce study and discover how your organization can create a more engaged workforce.

  • Download the free executive summary from Gallup's State of the Global Workplace report, or order the full report now.
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  • Listen to our podcast featuring Jim Harter, Gallup's chief scientist of workplace management, to hear his thoughts on what workers worldwide need from their bosses.

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