Thursday, May 19, 2011

A Race to be Middle Class in Korea

It was striking in Seoul that the standard workweek seemed to be 60 or 70 hours long, rather than 40. In this context, almost all women end up staying home after they have children, as both parents can't work this kind of week. Dads and singles are working so hard so that their children can go to the best schools, study like crazy, and ultimately get jobs and start the cycle over.

Korea has this in common with lots of other countries, it just seemed particularly striking in Seoul, where there are thousands of identical high-rises and you feel so small and insignificant as one person in this huge, anonymous set of satellite cities.

In Boston, while the race for status and success doesn't seem quite as transparent, we get locked into similarly constraining set of norms. A decreased work week is a privilege that a lot of our ancestors didn't have (they also didn't have two parents working outside the home), but the assumption is that we'll embrace work in order to get all these other luxuries our ancestors didn't have, either.

The assumption is subtle. I assume that I should have my own computer, that we should probably have a car and that it'll be radical and temporary when we don't, an apartment (definitely not just a room), a good set of knives, a bed, Starbucks every now and then (that's a whole different debate...) when all those decisions add up to a lot of work. We've made a lot of counter-cultural decisions already, but they have to be held much more tightly, and constantly defended, exactly because they're going against the prevailing current of assumptions.

To oversimplify:
Our Ancestors: A little Paid Work------food+shelter-----a few luxuries
we can choose: Less paid work---food+shelter----a few luxuries (still more than above)
Or: Lots of paid Work----food+shelter----many, many luxuries

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