Generational Change in Corporate Korea

White Papers | February, 2016

By Philippe Tirault

Korea has undergone tremendous change in the past 20 years. How have these changes affected organizations? Is the new generation of managers under the age of 35 different from those over 45? This survey assesses how these two generations coexist in in Korean companies.

Survey Results

“Are you different?"

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In order to understand how these two groups coexist within the same organization, we learned what the two think of each other and their perceived differences. A majority of both generations stated that the other group’s work ethic is different. Of those under 35 years old 46.2% and 55.6% of those over 45 years stated that the two have a different work ethic. For example, a percentage of the older generation believe that the younger lacks patience. The second highest percentage of difference stated by the younger generation is the lack of creativity in the older.

“Is it difficult to work with each other?”

        

Even though the answers vary, most people from both generations said that it is not that difficult to work with together. The difficulties that were noted primarily were that the older generation is more authoritative and that the younger generation is not independent enough.

“To Achieve a Better Harmony, We Want to See Improvement.”

We asked survey participants about the changes that they want to see in the other generation. Many of the answers were very simple but meaningful. A significant number of people answered that the older generation needs to be more flexible (86.2%). This answer implies that the older generation is more conservative compared to the younger.

The older generation responded that the younger generation should be more passionate about their work (43.9%), and 24.4% thought that the younger generation needed to more dedicated. This answer implies that work-life balance is of increasing importance to young Koreans. A few decades earlier it was quite normal for people to prioritize their career over their personal life, but that shifted as a healthy balance between work and home became more relevant and, increasingly, a social norm. Some of the answers stated that the older generation are generally not as open to the ideas proposed by younger colleagues, and that younger employees need to acquire more work-related knowhow and skills.

“We think they are different because they have different backgrounds.”

   

We suspected that the primary cause of generational differences are the dissimilar backgrounds and upbringings that each generation experienced, so we asked each generation’s opinions about the backgrounds of the other. We asked what the most significant factors in their differing backgrounds they believe contributed to the generation gap. A majority of the younger generation (33%) cited different educational levels, while 50% of the older generation replied that the youngers’ exposure to newer, foreign concepts played a major role. However, some of participants stated that it was several factors in combination together, not just one. And, averaged together, 16.5% of the respondents specifically selected the “Others” or “All of the Above.”

“We want to work for this type of organization because…”

    

    

Organizational structure preference is another key factor that characterizes generational differences. As we expected, younger people tended to prefer a horizontal organizational structure while older generation prefer a vertical one. Most of the people who preferred the horizontal organization did so because it can improve communication within the organization. Some noted that it also makes for a faster decision making process due to its simplified structure. On the other hand, those who preferred a vertical organization said that they favor it first because it is the cultural norm in Korea and, secondly, that people are easier to manage in a vertically structured organization. Interestingly, the small percentage of younger people who preferred the vertical structure did so for similar a similar reason: it is easier to control people (35%).

“What business culture?”

Is Team Building Dinner Necessary?

   Is Working Overtime Necessary?

We wanted to gather opinions regarding team building dinners and overtime in Korean corporate culture, both of which are key tenets of conservative and authoritative Korean companies. Surprisingly, a majority of respondents consider the teambuilding dinner necessary to improve teamwork, but that overtime was not. Younger respondents who stated that working overtime is necessary believe that it lets them focus on their work better, while older generations believe that it lets them work more. Of note was that younger workers who stated that overtime is necessary work late because no one leaves the office on time, so they stay as well, mainly to avoid making a bad impression on colleagues and superiors.

Conclusion

We knew that were significant differences between the opinions and outlooks of the two targeted groups, but we found that there no major issues that precluded them from working together productively. The most interesting finding was that both generations agreed on the necessity of the team building dinner and differed on why they work overtime. Frankly, we expected near opposite findings; that younger employees would view the team building dinner unfavorably and that the two would differ regarding the necessity of overtime. But otherwise the survey showed that, while there are preferences regarding organizational structure by those two groups that could lead to generational conflicts in certain organizations, the larger implication was that the management structure will move from the traditional hierarchical, and perhaps outdated, top-down environment to a more horizontal structure, particularly in newer companies.