Late entrance into workforce, long hours, delayed retirements make Koreans “time-poor”

Posted on : 2023-06-15 16:40 KST Modified on : 2023-06-15 16:41 KST
A new study compares lifetime working hours of Korean with the situation in other countries
Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions hold a banner calling on the Yoon Suk-yeol administration to scrap its plans for a 62-hour workweek on Wonhyo Bridge in Seoul on April 26. (Yonhap)
Members of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions hold a banner calling on the Yoon Suk-yeol administration to scrap its plans for a 62-hour workweek on Wonhyo Bridge in Seoul on April 26. (Yonhap)

Though most South Koreans get their first jobs at a relatively late age and work hours much longer than what their peers in other countries are used to at the height of their careers, they can neither rest nor let go of work even in old age.

Many South Koreans would viscerally agree with the above statement. Throughout their time in the labor market, a majority of them endure long working hours, unable to enjoy leisure time even in old age due to work. Compared to the situation in other countries, especially major developed countries, where is South Korea, a country where long work hours persist not just during the active income-generating period but throughout people’s lifetimes, in terms of working hours?

According to an analysis of South Koreans’ lifetime working hours authored by Hanshin University research professor Hwang Gyu-seong and obtained by the Hankyoreh on Wednesday, South Koreans indeed experience “time poverty” throughout their lifetime. Hwang dubbed South Korean society, where many people commonly experience this phenomenon, a “time-poor tired society.”

In order to analyze the problem of time poverty in South Korean society, Hwang looked at lifetime working hours during three different time periods: the labor market entry period, during which people transition from school to the labor market; the active income-generating period, during which people’s engagement in income-generating labor peak; and the retirement period, during which people exit the labor market. Afterward, Hwang compared lifetime working hours in South Korea during these three different time periods to those of 15 major OECD member countries including Sweden, the US and Germany.

The labor market entry period, when people find their first jobs, started late for young South Koreans. According to OECD statistics, the employment rate for young South Koreans between 15 and 24 years of age was 25.2% in 2021. In other words, only 2.5 out of 10 were employed.

The employment rate for people of the same age in OECD countries was 39% on average.

Out of the 15 countries compared, the employment rate for this age range was highest in the Netherlands (62.5%), followed by the UK (52.3%), Norway (49.3%), and Germany (48.1%). Countries with employment rates lower than that of South Korea were mainly Southern European countries like Italy (16.8%) and Spain (20.7%). This demonstrates that young South Koreans enter the labor market much later than young people elsewhere.

The reason for this can be found in the rate of higher education attainment for people between 15 and 24 years of age. In 2020, this figure was 69.8% for young South Koreans, the highest out of 15 major OECD member countries and much higher than the OECD average (45.5%). This is because most young South Koreans delay graduation and stay in school until their late 20s and even 30s due to the unemployment crisis, which prolongs their job search.

What about employment and lifetime working hours for South Koreans during the active income-generating period, when people enter the workforce and actively make money?

First, when it comes to the employment rate for people between 24 and 54 years of age, the figure for South Korea (74.9%) was lower than the OECD average (76.2%) in 2020. The figure for Northern European and Western European welfare states, such as Sweden (85%), Finland (82.4%), Germany (84%), and France (80.8%), mostly topped 80%. Southern European countries such as Italy (69.6%) and Spain (73.1%) had employment rates lower than South Korea’s.

What’s notable is the weekly working hours for people between 25 and 54 years of age. In 2020, South Koreans in that age range had the longest weekly working hours at 41.8 hours. In contrast, the OECD average was 37.8 hours. In other words, South Koreans worked four hours more on average. The country with the shortest weekly working hours was the Netherlands (33.3 hours), and only Belgium (41.9 hours) and Portugal (40.4 hours) had weekly working hours over 40.

Additionally, amongst the working-age population between 15 and 65 years of age, the ratio of workers who worked more than 50 hours a week was 20% for South Korea, 6.4 percentage points higher than the OECD average (13.6%).

In OECD member countries, men leave the labor market at 63.8 years of age on average while women do so at 62.4 years, entering the so-called retirement period. But in South Korea’s case, men and women retire at 65.7 years and 64.9 years of age, respectively. The number of older people who work even after hitting 70 is not insignificant as well. Compared to major Western countries, South Koreans retire very late.

In fact, in 2022, the labor force participation rate for people ages 65 and older was 15.3% on average for OECD countries and double that for South Korea, at 35.3%. The country with the next highest labor force participation rate for people 65 and older was the US (19.4%), followed by Germany (7.5%) and France (3.4%), with the figure for the vast majority of countries falling below 10%. This figure reflects how poor the elderly in South Korea are, so much so that many of them are not free from income-generating labor even after hitting 65 years of age and entering the retirement period.

“[South Koreans] endure long work hours during the prime of their careers, doing the utmost to work those long hours as job applicants and unable to let go of work even in old age,” Hwang said, looking at the lives of South Koreans through the lens of working hours. “There’s a desperate need for the institutionalization of rest towards a time-rich society, such as the introduction of the sabbatical system.”

By Lee Chang-gon, senior staff writer

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