South Korea planned a 69-hour week. Millennials and Generation Z had different ideas

Seoul, South Korea (CNN) Shorter workweeks to boost employee mental health and productivity may catch on in some places around the world, but at least one country appears to have missed the memo.

The South Korean government was forced this week to reconsider a plan that would have raised its working week limit from the current 52 to 69 after sparking a backlash from millennials and Gen Z workers.

Workers in the East Asian economic powerhouse already work some of the longest hours in the world — ranking fourth behind only Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile according to the OECD in 2021 — and death from overwork (“gwarosa”) is believed to kill dozens each year from people.

But the government had backed the plan to raise the cap after pressure from business groups looking to boost productivity — until it met vocal opposition from the younger generation and unions.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s senior secretary said Wednesday the government will take a new “direction” after listening to public opinion, saying it is committed to protecting the rights and interests of Millennials, Gen Z and the committed to non-union workers.

Raising the cap was seen as a way to counteract the looming labor shortage the country faces due to its declining fertility rate, which is the lowest in the world, and its aging population.

But the move was widely criticized by critics who argued tightening the screw for workers would only make matters worse; Experts often cite the country’s demanding work culture and the increasing disillusionment of younger generations as the driving factors behind the demographic problems.

It was only in 2018 that the country lowered the limit from 68 hours a week to the current 52 in response to popular demand – a step that was overwhelmingly approved by the National Assembly at the time.

Current law caps working weeks at 40 hours plus up to 12 hours of paid overtime – although in reality, critics say, many workers are under pressure to work longer hours.

“The proposal makes no sense … and is so far from what workers really want,” said Jung Junsik, 25, a university student from the capital Seoul, adding that even with the government’s about-face, many workers would still be working pressured to work beyond the legal maximum.

“My own father works excessively every week and there is no line between work and life,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is very common in the workforce. Labor inspectors cannot monitor every workplace 24 hours a day. The South Korean population will (continue to) be vulnerable to fatal overtime.”

Pedestrians in downtown Seoul.

According to the OECD, South Koreans worked an average of 1,915 hours in 2021, well above the OECD average of 1,716 and the American average of 1,767.

Long working hours — alongside high levels of education and an increase in women entering the labor market — were once widely credited as driving the country’s remarkable economic growth after the Korean War in the 1950s, when it turned from a poor economy into a prosperous nation developed the richest in the world.

But critics say the downside to these long hours is clearly seen in the dozens of “gwarosa” cases — “death from overwork” — in which exhausted people pay with their lives through heart attacks, work-related accidents or sleep-deprived driving.

Haein Shim, a spokeswoman for Seoul-based feminist group Haeil, said the country’s rapid growth and economic prosperity has come at a price, and the proposal to extend working hours reflects the government’s “reluctance to face the realities of South Korean society to acknowledge”.

She said “isolation and lack of community due to long hours and intense workdays” are already taking their toll on many workers and “insane working hours will further exacerbate the challenges faced by Korean women.”

In addition to the gwarosa cases, the country also has the highest suicide rate among developed nations, according to data from the National Bureau of Statistics, she pointed out.

“It’s critical for government (and businesses) to address urgent issues that are already impacting lives,” Shim said. “The need for support and a healthy work-life balance must not be overlooked if we are to ensure the well-being of people with the reality of the highest suicide rate in the OECD.”

In 2017, the year before the government lowered the limit on working hours, hundreds of people died from overwork, according to government data. Even when the limit was lowered to 52 hours, gwarosa cases continued to make headlines. In 2020, unions said 14 delivery workers had died from overwork after sacrificing their mental health and well-being to keep the country running during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With prior coverage by CNN’s Jake Kwon and Alexandra Field


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