“Wasted potential in a coffee shop”
March 28, 2016
I spent a few hours in a coffee shop in Gangnam last week finishing up some paperwork and reading a book. The coffee shop was beautifully appointed with comfortable leather chairs, oak woodwork and the café latte was served to me in a delicate porcelain cup. As I was the only customer in the coffee shop for most of the time, I had a chance to talk with the young man who served me.
A thoughtful young man with an inquisitive mind, he made several remarks about Korean culture that I found quite insightful and I was tempted to ask him to sit down with me at the table for a bit, although I feared that might not be an appropriate request.
In any case, I threw a glance at him every 20 minutes or so and saw him sitting behind the counter looking vaguely bored as he fiddled with his smartphone.
By the time I left the café I felt deeply disturbed by what I witnessed and I have to admit that I no longer feel comfortable drinking coffee at coffee shops as I did before. Here I found an extremely talented young man, a product of Korea’s excellent educational system, who was literate and insightful, but who is working in a position that offers him no opportunities to learn new skills, no chances to work together on a common project with his peers, no chance to learn from a senior employee and no opportunity to offer his ideas as to what innovations can be carried out in the company.
I scratched my head and asked myself “Is this how Korea treats its most valuable assets, worth more than gold or diamonds?” Could it be that after that much schooling, that many nights of studying for tests and of writing essays in one of the most competitive educational systems in the world — which is, by the way, a system in which Korea has invested billions of dollars over decades — the final use of that talent is working at an uncertain job without any particular challenges or rewards?
It is not as if there is no work to be done in Korea. We need to create a society in which citizens come together to address common problems, and to build a sustainable economy in which all energy is produced from wind and solar power, and to establish new systems for how we will govern our society during an age of profound change.
And there are many elderly Koreans who live in poverty, sometimes starving to death because they are too weak to feed themselves. They, the men and women who built Korea need help desperately, but there are no highly paid jobs available for young people to help them either.
And as we know from the recent match between Lee Se-dol by Google’s DeepMind AlphaGo we need to harness the imagination and the creativity of all young people to come up with solutions to the challenges posed by rapid technological change.
If humans give a positive direction to the evolution of technology so that it serves a real purpose in our society, rather than just dehumanizing our experiences in the pursuit of profit, there may be hope.
And the relentless development of weapons in North Korea follows the same exponential curve as the evolution of computers, with no limits in sight for how sophisticated those missiles and bombs may become. Nor is the development of such weapons technology limited to North Korea. We need every young mind working on creative new “outside-the-box” solutions to these new threats.
But these young men and women working in coffee shops are not allowed to play a role in solving the challenges of our age. If anything, the coffee shop lulls them into distraction and they forget the dangers that we face.
Technology will not drive Korea’s future economy: creative people who can give a direction and a purpose to technology will lead it.
These young people are not customers to sell goods to, and they are not products to be offered for consumption. They are Korea’s future and they are far more valuable than a semiconductor fabrication plant or a new real estate investment. Making sure that they reach their full potential is Korea’s only road forward.
The root of this is inter-generational realities common to all societies, but Korea is particularly crippled by traditional cultural constructs that in truth, are not advantages in this context.
To some degree, this has been a problem in all societies. It speaks to a general problem: When people live long lives, the young have no space to move into as older people occupy economic and political niches. This is generally true for all human societies. There’s a strange historical experiment in what happens when this reality changes.
One of the great liberating effects of the Black Death and other waves of plague in Europe was to clean out vast swathes of the healthy middle from Europe. Unusually, it wasn’t the young and old or infirm that died; the death was almost random, and could have been said to impact the healthy middle-aged population even more than others. The result was a grim world, but one in which the young could move into positions of power and authority early and could contribute to the world in disproportionate numbers. This accounts for the absurdly long careers of many Renaissance scholars, merchants, traders and politicians, who often had few advantages when young, and the complete economic realignment of the entire continent. New forms of government emerged or re-emerged, absolute autocracies fell, the foundations for modern republics were formed, constitutions were imposed on monarchs, feudal economies changed through inexorable evolution. The effects of disease’s literal extermination of vast numbers of people cannot possibly be underestimated in this.
One of the central effects empowering the young was the inheritance of vast amounts of wealth by people who still had energy and youth. When all of their relatives are gone, the young could dream, and dream big.
Also, one crucial effect was to push people away from political control of economies to the power of spontaneous marketplaces. These emerged and had the most transformative power where the political class had been most affected; in some places, almost extirpated. It was as if God came down and simple eliminated whole political classes. This was the case in Germany, in Northern Italy, and especially in Northern Europe, where political power had less and less meaning in the collection or diversion of resources. The concomitant mass generation of wealth unheard of in European history. The effects of freeing the economy from political confiscation and interference, even the elimination of trade borders, can’t be underestimated. Economic freedom and freedom from the political interference of others had a profound impact on the social order, and it changed Europe forever.
This ushered in a golden age in trade, agriculture, innovation and political and social experimentation. Of course, this was possible because of mass, random death. It devastated the continent, but by literally eliminating many of the healthy middle-aged population in repeated waves, as opposed to the It might not be the way forward.
But Korea has a particular problem with this. The problem is the traditional Korean social hierarchy, in which age is the primary consideration. While this society has discarded the elderly, ironically in a mass quest for raw survival, the young are confined by social ethics to positions of mere mimickry, locked in servile roles, in which they defer endlessly to their elders. This exacerbates the usually deadening effect of not engaging youth.
This is a desperately negative consequence of “Confucian” Korean culture. The enemy is an obsession with stability and order. For the young, order as a central virtue is no gift. This illustrates how virtues can be curses in different situations, and this is true nowhere more than in Korea.
This is one area where Korea can improve its performance. Unfortunately, none of this is as easy as making space through programs or creating set-asides or state-led initiatives. Much like the withering of the State during the waves of plague in Europe, what will bring social change is being freed from hierarchy and social control.
Government is an agency of social control. Government is almost always the handmaiden of stagnation.
It would be convenient if this was the result of the pernicious evils of capitalism. Unfortunately, the enemy here is no specific economic or political actor, but structure and imposed order itself.
One of the things we want to do is free up market space for young people to experiment with capitalism and the marketplace of ideas more freely : Their energy and drive and ambition is what we want to capitalize on, to free them to push boundaries and, in effect, create new wealth and opportunity by maximizing their ambitions. The very last thing we need to do is confine this with programs and guidelines. This will simply create a new vector for competitive bell-ringing and kowtowing to the rigidly enforced order.
These young people need to be freed to get rich and enrich society. And by “rich”, I mean in more than just material terms. It means becoming richer in scientific and artistic terms, and most of all through social capital. If someone decides that creating a world-changing NGO is a route suitable for his or her ambitions, then this can be a major generator for social capital. They need resources for this, resources made available through a much freer economy and social order. Every time we make them answerable to some higher social authority, we restrict their ability to even enter into any kind of life-path.
Restricting the life-path of Korean youth seems to be the primary purpose of the Korean hierarchical state and social order. This is deeply traditional, one of the worst mementos of the feudal Korean past.
What’s telling is comparing this situation with other nations. If you compare to my own home (Canada), the situation in Korea is, indeed, relatively grim; in Canada, young people who have ambition and drive have much greater scope for action, though they’re still stymied by the Age-centred concentration of resources and human capital in people 40-60 that all societies suffer from.
But traditional Korean culture obviously has a deadening effect compared to Canada, where young people often take leading roles – when they can, sometimes assisted by their elder contacts who provide resources.
A better comparison would be to other Asian societies that combine freedom from political interference and confiscation. Taiwan is a good example. While typically Asian in these terms, it’s also much more free. Young people in corporations and in the free markets and in academia and in the arts and culture have vastly more freedom to move up and outward than in Korea. Comparisons with Taiwan, which has its own unique difficulties, in this respect is quite damning for Korea.
Ultimately, these issues are issues of culture. Korea is uniquely afflicted with a hierarchical, centralized, State-led social order whose primary goal is social control. North Korea shows what can happen when political order is prioritized over all else, and the two parallels indicate that the flaw is fundamentally cultural in nature. South Korea benefited from having market and some personal freedoms imposed by a foreign social model, but North Korea was allowed to become a totalitarian rebirth of Joseon Korea, a police state that the Joseon kings would have approved of.
South Korea needs to break with this historical tradition if it wants to empower its youth. It’s the only solution. There is immense depth and intensity and colour and style in Korean genius, but it’s absolutely crippled by traditional Korean social ethics. This is what plagues Korean corporate culture, it stymies academic work, it generates immense corruption, it prevents the emergence of a healthy civil society. In family culture, it inculcates a sense of obligation without love or desire, and Korea is a place where voluntary social action (like supporting your parents or being decent to those not in your immediate circles) is effectively discouraged. Korean families are centres of duty and obligation, not voluntary association, and this is tragic.
The emphasis on order and hierarchy is almost wholly negative in its modern application. This is central to explaining why so many young people in Korea are given no scope for movement.
I see little hope within Korea itself for young people. The culture of entitlement, rigid order and hierarchy is deeply entrenched, ironically both in North and South Korea, and dissent is barely tolerated by society at large. How much artistic genius flounders in the alleys of Hongdae and the tiny galleries of Itaewon and Hapjeong? How unrepresentative of Korea’s genius are the “official” visions of Korea’s virtues, with comically incompetent institutions squandering both opportunities and the nation’s future?
The Korea Tourism Organization is a mockery of what a competent tourism promotion office should be, kneecapped by bizarrely inappropriate and anodyne visions of what Korea has to offer the word, whose administrators are incompetent officials given sinecures instead of sacked for uselessness. Universities suffer from cultures of pervasive corruption, places where professorships go to the most aggressively mediocre, the academically correct and cowardly, and those few who can pay bribes and considerations. Corporations are broken into feudal fiefdoms that constrict all movement of ideas out of respect for those promoted to the level of their incompetence.
There’s no reason for individuals to behave with circumspection and progressive consideration of the public good or others. Once in positions of power, all encouragement is for individuals to become lead weights depressing everything else around them. Hierarchy is a virtue. Order is stagnation. Respect and obligation become excuses for voluntary abdication of responsibility.
Daoists often criticized confucianism for these very same sins, and this debate in Asia needs to be revived. It’s a tragedy that confucianism was such a convenient political morality for absolute lords to promote.The consequences have been, at least in this respect, disastrous.
There is one way for youth to seek advantage: they can leave Korea. Even though they may have language and background problems, lives lived abroad are almost always freer and better for ambitious Korean migrants than they are in Korea itself. It’s a huge gift to other societies that Koreans of energy are driven out of Korea. If places like Australia and Canada were smarter, they would have aggressive programs to draw out and settle talented Koreans and give them the opportunities Korean society seems incapable of generating. I would be targeting the young and educated and talented and aggressively promote emigration of this youthful energy, making sure they were given positive reinforcement once they had settled through assistance and settlement and adaptation programs. These places should recognize Korean credentials, have active language training programs, have recertification programs designed for professionals, and make it easy for young people to make these decisions.
Ironically, it’s in creating a large, empowered, freed Korea diaspora that Korea could end up becoming socially free. Koreans raised abroad have a growing impact on Korea itself, dragging it out of its self-imposed cage. By example, they shame Korea; by cultural impact, they push Korea; by personal connections, they link Korea to the world outside.
It’s easy to understand why the Joseon and North Korean leaderships wanted to block all contact with the outside world that didn’t go through the State. Personal contacts stimulate social change, and the greatest Korean political virtue for a thousand years has been “stability”. Unfortunately, the flipside of this coin is “stagnation”.
One of the gifts of the West has been economic freedom. Along with its own vices, it now offers Korea options it’s never had before. Its inexorable pull and obvious success push Korea into change, in spite of itself.
Thankfully, South Korea is increasingly integrated into the rest of the world, into a global community, and I’m confident that this will have the exact effect the kings of the land dislike most: It will bring social change. Chaos!
This is what Korea needs more than anything else: Less order. And more change.