#12. LONG VIEW: Squid Game, A.k.a. Labour & Its Discontents, the Zeitgeist of Our times
Read Time: 5 min
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Today we’re covering the growing dissatisfaction within the world’s workforce. One could argue that it really is the zeitgeist of our times.
Why Squid Game came out of South Korea
Labour participation rates
Employee attitudes in China (survey data)
Employee expectations vs reality
Motivation tactics in the workplace
Employees’ view of problems
Employee attitudes by age cohort
The iron rice bowl makes a comeback in China
Graduates flock to SOEs
Private vs public workforce
There are increasingly visible signs of workforce dissatisfaction across the world. A large proportion of the grievances have been accentuated by Covid. Some examples:
The Great Resignation happening across the US (Inc article)
The Lying Flat counterculture happening across China (Bloomberg article)
The Herbivore Men movement in Japan that sprung up after the bubble burst (Reuters article)
The Squid Game TV show out of South Korea and the massive appeal it has gathered (Fielding University analysis)
Let’s see if we can visualise any of these trends.
1. Why Squid Game came out of South Korea
Let’s bring out the big guns here. Suicide rates. It’s a bit grim but illustrates the point. South Korea tops the world for male suicides, second only to Russia.
A societal structure where such a high proportion of males sees no way out and chooses suicide is quite telling.
Plotting a few countries on a time series:
South Korea is technically one of the Asian Tigers, an economic miracle of the last few decades that went from dirt poor to developed. But suicides have actually increased during this time. The pressure on males in the country must be immense. And it can’t be explained away by “it’s a Confucian culture” argument, since both Japan and China have lower rates. Japan’s actually decreased since 2010. And China’s reading (~10) is nowhere near Korea’s (~40).
Korea’s suicide rates increased as labour participation rates (% of working-age adults actually working) simultaneously increased (correlation, not judging causation here):
And all this whilst South Korea’s unemployment rates hover at near historical lows at ~4%:
2. Employee attitudes in China (survey data)
China’s labour market is nowhere near mature (opinion). Career paths and progression are always in flux. What’s more, younger generations cannot really rely on their parents’ experience or older role models since it’s a completely different world they’re facing. But what’s for certain is that expectations and reality are often at odds:
Motivation tactics used by employers are usually outdated and don’t find appeal. Managers are simply older than junior staff and what worked for them just doesn’t anymore.
Here’s what employees see as problems with current motivation strategies in the workplace:
Attitudes definitely change by generation. Here’s a chart by age cohort.
3. The iron rice bowl makes a comeback in China
Given all the recent economic turbulence, people crave stability. Chinese graduates now flock to low paying but predictable state owned jobs. From a CNBC article:
One 24-year-old who requested anonymity said she took an offer from a major bank in Beijing for job security. After the pandemic, companies that were too small or privately run didn’t seem as stable as state-owned ones, she said. […]
The trend is nationwide. Chinese recruitment site Zhaopin found that 42.5% of graduating students said state-owned enterprises were their top choice for a job – up from 36% last year.
In contrast, the percentage choosing the private sector fell to 19% from 25.1%. Students were less inclined to enter the workforce overall – the study found an 18.9 percentage point drop in graduates taking traditional jobs. Instead, more decided to freelance, take a gap year or pursue higher academic degrees.
But to put things into perspective, nowadays public jobs account for less than 20% of the employment share. Not many will find employment there, maybe just stiff competition.
Graduates flocking to few public jobs available seems to be a throwback to “better times”, as the new social contract driven by the private sector is increasingly less appealing as growth slows and costs of living rise (see previous Long View article here).
More than 2.12 million registered for Sunday’s civil service ‘guokao’ exam, the first time the number has crossed 2 million. Applicants have just a one-in-68 chance of success of landing coveted ‘iron rice bowl’ positions.
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China Charts Team