>The ‘condescending old people’ of South Korea’s workforce
You're readingThe ‘condescending old people’ of South Korea's workforceGeneration ProjectMillennialShare on FacebookShare on TwitterShare on LinkedinShare using EmailShare on WhatsappClose navigationSimilar ArticlesThe office where phones are bannedAn exam that grinds a country to a haltIn South Korea, the term ‘kkondae’ is more than just an insult. It represents a push-back against the old guard at work as a new generation of leaders moves in.By Soo Zee Kim 7th August 2019
Wouldn’t it be nice if millennials weren’t accused of being entitled, self-righteous and stubborn? Perhaps, but that is unlikely to happen. In South Korea, however, there is another group that is notorious for being the most self-righteous – even worse than millennials. They are called ‘kkondae’.
In Korean, kkondae loosely translates as “condescending older person”, the kind you often find in a middle- or upper-management position. The kkondae title is usually attributed to men and almost always used as an insult, pointedly calling out supervisors who are quick to dole out unsolicited advice and even quicker to demand absolute obedience from their juniors.
Like most new words that enter the zeitgeist, the exact origin of kkondae is unclear. In its early days, kkondae was student slang to label unforgiving, stubborn and strict teachers. Now kkondae is widely used outside the classroom to describe the type of person whom nobody wants to become, particularly within offices.
It also gives a name to the tension caused by a generational divide that seems wider than ever before.
Kkondae get their power from the hierarchical structure of Korean workplaces – and juniors are rarely permitted to question authority (Credit: Alamy)
Living in a kkondae world
Much of younger workers’ pushback against kkondae comes from South Korea’s well-established affinity for hierarchy, which can feel constricting to anyone in the workplace. Within any organisation – a company, a school, a social club – members are ranked, and your ranking does more than just determine who you report to and what kind of responsibility you have.
It also mandates who takes notes in a meeting, who calls to make a reservation for the team dinner and who distributes the spoons and chopsticks once you’re in the restaurant (cutlery is usually in a self-serve wooden box in most Korean establishments).
In the kind of work culture in which colleagues are addressed solely by their job titles, the organisational pyramid is a guidebook for navigating a company, giving everyone a clear picture of where they belong in the chain. Kkondae get their power from this pecking order – and juniors are rarely permitted to question authority.
Also frustrating to Korean youth is the generational divide over work-centric values, chiefly the importance placed on company loyalty.
“People my age see our jobs as just one fraction of our life, more a tool to build our lives,” says Dayoung Ahn, 29. “On the contrary, my superiors see their jobs as a critical part of their lives and often don’t understand why we don’t have the same loyalty towards the company as they do.”
Unlike millennials, baby boomers put work first. Theirs was an age of strict authoritarian rule, in which hair length was policed and international travel was restricted. Baby boomers were given few personal choices, and also had to build their careers in a much narrower definition of what it meant to be a good citizen, devoted to building the country. Steady, respectable employment was the foundation of good citizenship. This absolutism may explain why some elders have difficulty adjusting to millennials with freedom they never experienced.
As Professor Byoung-Hoon Lee, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University explains, for baby boomers, the goals and aims of your unit at work take precedence over personal goals.
People my age see our jobs as just one fraction of our life, more a tool to build our lives – Dayoung Ahn
“They were brought up under nationalism where the nation’s economic growth was the priority,” he says. “So many people were motivated by that, and boomers are still quite loyal to their jobs.”
Yet even executives who aren’t baby boomers have been cast into this work-first value system, whether they like it or not. Take Kyoung Duk Kim, 42. “Even while I was working in a start-up,” he explains, “being an executive automatically put me in the kkondae category for younger workers there”.
For Kim, being a self-proclaimed “liberal gen X” working in a deliberately horizontal environment did not matter. He was given the kkondae label because the term has become synonymous with older authority, and the hierarchical chain of command young employees dislike on principle.
South Korean millennials are hoping for more work-life balance, and the loosening of traditional work structures – including the kkondae they have to answer to (Credit: Alamy)
The kkondae backlash
Culture will not change overnight, and openly rebellious acts against the hierarchy are still discouraged. Yet a growing impatience with kkondae has led to at least a few changes.
To an outsider, some of these shifts may seem subtle. Take the practice of paid leave, which even new employees can request during any month of the year.
“In my day, I wasn’t able to go on holidays whenever I wanted,” explains Jae Eui Kim, 63. “HR would schedule holidays by teams or department, and teams had to take turns so the company could still run normally.” But there’s more flexibility now. Under the old social order, the freedom to take paid time off whenever you want was an unimaginable luxury.
So too would have been today’s work hours. A new government policy first implemented in April mandates a maximum 52-hour workweek. This change, and other new company practices such as paternity leave, are meant to incentivise millennials to do their part in improving South Korea’s declining birthrate. The new generation of parents-to-be seem to be pushing marriage and child-rearing much later, or choosing to forego them all together, often citing work culture as the primary reason.
For now, the 52-hour workweek policy still only applies to large companies with more than 300 employees. But its existence alone is a major contrast to the experiences of baby boomers, who were required to work half days on Saturdays until 1994, when the law enforcing five-day workweeks was first passed.
There is even a new Korean word for what millennials are looking for in their new workplace: ‘worabel’, short for ‘work-life balance’
Now, South Korean millennials desire more than traditional work structures – including the kkondae they have to answer to. Being in the rising majority may help: according to the Korean Statistics Bureau (KOSTAT), millennials currently comprise 22.2% of the South Korean population, and their representation in the Korean workforce is growing. (For context, after 2020 millennials will be 50% of the global workforce.)
There is even a new Korean word for what millennials are looking for in their new workplace: ‘worabel’, short for ‘work-life balance’.
“This new phrase, worabel, is the best term to describe millennials,” says Chung-Ang University’s Lee. “It shows how much they prioritise personal goals first, above company interest.”
Both worabel and kkondae are symbols of the shifting values and expectations young workers bring to their employers. Companies have taken note, attempting to shift policy and open up work culture at least a little. Employees might call each other with English names, or be able to opt out of mandatory dinners. Still, despite almost universal hatred toward stubborn seniors, the term kkondae is unlikely to retire anytime soon.
If that is discouraging, however, hold onto hope. Kkondae is just one word of a new language South Koreans are creating to discuss – and hopefully bridge – the gap among generations.
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