South Korean millennials and Gen Z are raging against the idea of a 69-hour workweek. They are tired, having fewer babies, and are even working themselves to death.
- The South Korean government wants to increase the workweek to 69 hours.
- Currently, the workweek is capped at 52 hours.
In early March, the South Korean government introduced a divisive plan to increase the country's workweek to 69 hours, up from the current cap of 52 hours.
The proposal drew instant backlash, forcing the government to rethink the plan.
Kim Eun-Hye, the senior secretary to South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, said in a statement on March 15 that the government is taking a new "direction" after negative public opinion about the proposed increase, per CNN.
But it didn't end there: On March 25, about 13,000 trade union members gathered in Daehak-ro to protest against the reform, with signs reading "abolish 69-hour" and "judgment of Yoon Suk Yeol."
The proposal also ignited an ongoing debate. Insider spoke to three workers in Korea about the need for a healthy work-life balance. They all said their country's work-first expectations are not working for them anymore.
'I'm feeling very exhausted'
Korea has systems in place to protect workers, but they are not working effectively, said Park Jong-gwan, a 28-year-old private tutor. Park said he works at least 48 hours a week, and more during exams season.
"I'm at a point where I'm considering having a housemate to share chores with, even if it's just to survive," Park told Insider.
"Even temporarily, this law, which enables 69 hours or 80.5 hours of work per week, can harm the people's right to be healthy," said a South Korean in their early 30s who works 60 to 64 hours a week for a small business and who declined to be named for this story.
"I'm also feeling very exhausted," they added.
The 69-hour limit relates to a six-day workweek, while the 80.5-hour limit is applicable for a seven-day workweek, according to South Korean outlet Han Kyeo Re.
The most overworked country in Asia
South Korea is the most overworked country in Asia and the fifth-most overworked country in the world, according to employment outlook data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, in 2022.
On average, a Korean worker worked 1,915 hours in 2021. In comparison, an American worker worked an average of 1,791 hours in 2021, per the OECD.
All those long hours on the job are affecting workers, to the extent that Koreans even have a term for death by overwork: "gwarosa."
In 2020, 14 delivery couriers in South Korea died of overwork stemming from increased deliveries during the COVID-19 pandemic, Reuters reported, citing a union representative.
In Korea, overworking has also been linked to a lower quality of life. "Long working hours were associated with stress, depression, and suicidal ideation in young employees, aged 20 to 35," according to an August 2020 research paper by a group of scientists who studied the negative impact of long working hours on young Korean workers. The study analyzed data collected from 3,332 young adult employees.
Notably, the culture of long working hours and death linked to overworking is not specific to South Korea. Long working hours killed 745,000 people globally via stroke and heart disease in 2016, according to a May 2021 study by the World Health Organization, or WHO, and the International Labour Organization. That's a 29% increase since 2000.
But Korea's overworking culture has also been linked to another pressing problem: a low birth rate.
The government is trying to disconnect longer working hours from low birth rates
On February 22, Statistics Korea, a central government organization, released sobering data.
South Korea's total fertility rate — the total number of children per woman over her fertility period — dropped to just 0.78 in 2022, down from 0.81 in 2021. A shrinking birth rate means two pressing issues: an aging population and shrinking workforces. Both have a cyclical impact — fewer people in the workforce means slower economic growth, which, in turn, makes it harder for governments to care for their aging citizens.
However, the government is trying to disconnect longer working hours from low birth rates.
On March 27, South Korea's employment and labor ministry posted a tweet that sparked further outrage among the country's workers.
"The linking between the working hour system reform and low birth rates lacks logical justification," read the tweet.
—고용노동부 (@molab_suda) March 27, 2023
"I think the tweets of the ministry are malicious tweets that intentionally distort the part that the 69-hour flexible working hour system contributes to gender conflicts," Hwang Woo-sang, a game designer in the blockchain industry, told Insider.
Hwang lives with his partner but is not married. He said he wants to have children, but that he's facing financial and psychological obstacles to getting there. He believes the longer workweek reform stands to worsen the country's birthrate crisis.
In a Korean article by Kyunghyang News headlined "Go work 69 hours a week, also go have a child, but it's a 'no' to parental leave," survey and interview results suggested that many South Korean workers are unable to take parental leave freely for reasons such as work pressure and pay cuts.
"Let's not talk about 69 hours, even just working 60 hours and 5 days a week, every single day we can only get off work at 11 pm, who's going to give birth and raise a child?" Workplace Gabjil 119, a labor law organization, told Kyunghyang News.
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