Why, Gonzalez asks, would a nation enjoying robust economic growth and international prestige be losing ground in studies of national happiness? He points to a generation of young people who are unconvinced that the rewards of the Korean economy are equitably shared and see success as reserved for those who are already wealthy. Other factors, he suggests, might be the nation’s low fertility rate and aging population. He argues that a cultural emphasis on efficiency and speed is the cause of several deadly industrial disasters in recent years. Meanwhile, globalization introduces new ways of life that are “diametrically opposed to existing traditional values” such as respect for the elderly and collaboration.
Gonzalez takes a first-person approach to a wide-ranging work that would be more persuasive if it foregrounded Korean voices and avoided sweeping statements such as “Koreans have an innate desire to reach consensus.” However, readers will appreciate his celebration of South Korea’s adoption of new technologies, spirit of collective sacrifice, and enduring traditions. Those who agree with Gonzalez’s beliefs about the cost of material success will appreciate this compilation of statistics, personal observations, and food for thought.
Takeaway: This study will interest Westerners looking for a sympathetic and self-aware outsider’s take on 21st-century South Korean cultural shifts.
Great for fans of Geoffrey Cain’s Samsung Rising, Boye Lafayette De Mente’s The Korean Way in Business.
Design and typography: A
Marketing copy: A
In their South Korea - The price of Efficiency and Success, Dr. John Gonzalez and Young Lee describe in comparative detail the customs, culture, and conflicts of modern-day South Korea. As I open the book and start reading, I become a “virtual traveler”, amazed by the country’s advanced technology, its culture and food, and its landscapes. I like reading about the Buddhist temples and the kindness of the Korean people. I learn about the history of food delivery dating back to the Joseon Dynasty.
Progressing through the book, I learn about beautiful and delightful traits of the Korean people. I also learn that they are overworked, both as students and as workers. South Korea's is a culture where speed and convenience-to-the-consumer are over-emphasized: the country’s economic success comes at a price.
The book's dedication reads: “For the victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy”--in which 304 lives were lost when an overloaded boat ferrying school-children to Jeju Island lurched to starboard, tipped over on its side and sank. Foundering ferries, collapsing buildings, hospital blazes; "man-made accidents" brought about by poorly trained employees, shoddy construction, and lax safety standards--these are hallmarks of a society which puts profits and ppalli ppalli ("hurry, hurry") ahead of human life. (p 207)
South Korea ranks high in the world by many measures. A 2014 Forbes survey found that fathers in South Korea receive more paternity leave than other fathers do: “Parental paid leave in South Korea is #1 worldwide, at 52.6 weeks, with 31% payment.” This country receives a high “Happiness score” in the World Happiness Report. However, due to a high rate of suicide among the young, skyrocketing youth unemployment, automation-related job losses, and workplace discrimination against the middle-aged, South Korea has fallen from 41st place in 2012 (out of 156 happiness-rated countries) to 54th place in 2018.
In an Afterword, the authors describe steps that Koreans could take to improve their quality of life. They could determine that well-being for the citizenry was more important than an ever-expanding GDP. They could determine that less emphasis on "efficiency" and short-term financial gain could reduce the incidence of industrial accidents and shoddy construction, both major causes of death. Among youth 9 to 24 in age, "intentional harm" is the primary cause of death. Lessening job- and school-related stress could result in fewer suicides among the young. Automation-related job losses could be reduced by shortening the work week (without paying workers less). This would require the hiring of many more workers to “get the job done”.
There is no easy solution for job losses among the ranks of middle-aged workers, routinely let go so that younger ones can be hired. Workers without jobs cannot pay for private tutoring or a university education for their offspring. So the sons and daughters of displaced workers have lesser chances for success in South Korea's competitive job-market than their better-educated counterparts. Discrimination against middle-aged workers thus leads to discrimination against their children.
In sum, Koreans could reign in some of the profit-driven excesses that--while growing the South Korean economy--have harmed the citizenry in many ways.
South Korea - The Price of Efficiency and Success is a must-read for 12th graders and up--and for all who want to make this world a better place. In exhibiting the lineaments of South Korean society, Dr. John Gonzalez and Young Lee have provided a lens through which to view the societies we live in.
I strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in learning more about S. Korea. The authors present a thorough analysis of the factors that helped S. Korea recover from the Korean War devastation and the cultural aspects that propelled the country onto the world stage economically and technologically.
Although this book is written from an outsider's perspective, it shows a surprisingly deep understanding of S. Korea and analyses of the social issues facing Koreans. They identify behavioral and cultural patterns prevalent in S. Korea that contributed to the country's incredible recovery, which unfortunately also had a part in creating the challenges the country is facing.
Furthermore, they provide reliable data to support their argument while nicely balancing their case between hard data and storytelling. They share some stories that touch the heart and depict the Korean people as they are—giving, hardworking, nationalistic, goal-oriented, passionate, gourmet, trend-setters, and somewhat materialistic. The authors know Korea and Koreans well.
I wish there had been a book like this when I moved to South Korea in 2016. I lived there until 2019 and enjoyed immensely the people, the cuisine, and many other things, but could have used this book to avoid experiencing faux pas. As a native of the USA, I sometimes felt completely in the dark socially with respect to South Korean customs. This book gives me a greater understanding of the South Korean people and the culture. Further, it went into detail about the professional and educational aspirations of South Koreans. Understanding this for me takes on added importance because my reason for being there for 3 years was to work as a school counselor with South Korean high school students wishing to apply to American universities. The detail in this book should also be of great value to the parents of these South Korean students, as it provides detail about how these students who earn their degree in the United States can expect to use it, and not use it if they return to South Korea to look for work after graduating.
I read this book after watching the highly acclaimed South Korean movie, "Parasite." After reading this book, I have a much better understanding of the reality and socioeconomic issues in S. Korea. The central theme of the movie centers on social inequality and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. As the movie director, Bong Joon-Ho has said repeatedly during interviews, the issues portrayed in the movie are universal. However, the degree of inequality is intensified in S. Korea as a result of cultural nuances, their lifestyle, the unprecedented family expenditures on private education, etc.
In this book, the authors present a thorough analysis of these and other unique Korean cultural attributes that also explain the country’s transformation after the Korean War to become an economic and technological powerhouse while placing less emphasis on issues such as public safety.
I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to explore S. Korea at a deeper level.