We were having a company lunch. Our team was sitting at a galbitang restaurant that our boss liked, discussing the recent news reports around the excesses of the then Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn. Our boss, who had a deep interest in politics, was harshly critical of the behavior of Hwang, who was also Acting President at the time. He was lecturing us about how this was the present state of Korean politics and how you should learn to serve others if you want others to serve you, when suddenly he went quiet. Sensing that something was up, I looked up from where I’d been working on getting meat off of a bone with a pair of scissors, and immediately an empty plate for kkakdugi kimchi landed in front of me. I went down to the kitchen on the first floor, filled up the plate with kkakdugi, placed it carefully in front of my boss, and wiped up the kimchi water that had spattered on the table by my seat.
Five months after that day, I quit. During that time, my boss was promoted to managing director and replaced by a general manager who glowered at a pregnant employee, saying “What are you thinking getting pregnant at a busy time like this!” The manager who’d once borrowed my phone under the pretense that he needed to search for something online and instead inspected what I’d written on Blind only smacked his lips at the news that I was quitting, and the assistant manager who was my direct supervisor said, “Just know that other companies are all the same.” What I felt as I quit my first job without a backup plan at the age of 30 was helplessness.
I was born in November 1988. I didn’t get to see Hodori (the mascot for the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympic Games) or the June Struggle (June Democracy movement) of 1987. I only read stories, in Jo Jung-rae’s The Han River, of the times Korea was under military regimes, when presidents weren’t really elected by the people, and I grew up in an era without water boarding or electric shock torture. Compared to the 1970s, when teachers beating students and sending them to hospital was considered an ordinary disciplinary measure, my high school music teacher smashing students’ heads with a wooden handbell was nothing. And the Korean military of today where my senior who enlisted a month earlier than me forced me to finish my meals within three minutes without water, saying that he had to finish his in a minute, was like daycare compared to the Korean military of my father’s generation when people died during training every day. In other words, I’ve lived every day in a society that had undergone such rapid change that the violence that my peers and I experienced were not even considered violence.
Our generation is used to the older generation criticizing us for lacking patience because we were raised with warm food on the table and clothes on our backs. But that doesn’t mean that we sit and take their criticism. Young workers at companies deplore all kinds of unjust practices and the people of older generations who built this kind of authoritative culture. The problem is that such condemnation ends with rosy prospects for the future. “Once the people at the top are gone, it’ll get better.” But the retirement of the older generation, mostly baby boomers, will not automatically result in the democratization of workplaces. Violence begets violence.
Young workers who suffered under old fogeys without being credited for their efforts vent their pent up anger on the younger employees. It’s not the department heads but the young direct supervisors who train new employees to internalize the obviously unfair practices of ‘voluntarily’ staying at work as late as the department head and ‘voluntarily’ attending company get-togethers. Subtlety is key: “You can go home after you finish your work, but our boss doesn’t like people going home right at six, so I rarely leave work without working overtime, but it’s up to you.” And others who see their juniors as potential competitors simply watch them make mistakes and offer crappy consolations like “That’s how you learn” after they get into trouble and are subjected to a terrible telling off by the department head. People like this, who are sensitive about the violence that they’ve been subjected to but are dull to the violence they end up perpetuating, lie in ambush in every workplace.
So then are these younger fogeys perpetuating evil because they are naturally sly and self-centered? This is the generation that witnessed the Asian financial crisis in their childhood and experienced the worst unemployment crisis in history as adults. In 1997, children who watched their fathers become unemployed not because of mean bosses but because of an uncontrollable reason—the economic crisis—couldn’t find a target on which to lay the blame. Having spent their adolescences with the understanding that survival wasn’t easy, they had to work much harder to get into a good enough company that people who graduated five years earlier had only had to wait long enough to get into. At least with college entrance exams, you got what you put in. But with job searches, there were too many variables. They had to write and rewrite their personal statements many times to reflect the characteristics each company was looking for in new employees and pull all nighters to prepare for aptitude tests, writing exams, and the NCS (National Competency Standards), yet only a handful of places called them for interviews. Even at the interviews, they had to stand quiet and still like folding screens because the company already had someone in mind and then went home only to start preparing for the next interview. Those who finally got jobs after this difficult process were no longer energetic youths but obedient new hires who were used to competition.
That’s why there are no role models in companies today. There is nothing to learn from our seniors who badmouth the older fogeys but end up doing exactly what they’ve been criticizing. And my pride doesn’t let me learn from the older generations who have submitted to the strong and oppressed the weak while prioritizing the benefit of the company over that of the people. Ultimately, the place where we end up at is a lonely isle of defensive individualism. I’m not even asking for respect—I’ll do what I have to do, so just don’t harass me with stuff outside of work. There isn’t much that we want. Instead of throwing an empty plate to the youngest employee, the person who noticed it was empty should ask for a refill themselves. That’s all.