How Important Is Culture? Look at South Korea

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Grodnitzky, Ph.D.
March 5, 2024

One of my most popular talks is called “Culture Trumps Everything.” And when I say “everything,” I mean everything. As proof of that, I would point you toward a recent headline out of South Korea: The country’s birth rate has dropped to .72. This means that for every 100 South Korean women, there are 72 births over their lifetimes.

South Korea has the lowest birth rate in the world, and it is the only developed country to have a birth rate below 1.0. For any country to maintain its current population, it must have a birth rate of at least 2.1. If current trends continue, demographic analysts predict that the number of working-age people in South Korea will be cut in half within the next 50 years, and almost half the population will be 65 or older. 

Some experts are warning that South Korea may be the first country in the world to face extinction of its population within this millennium. But the combination of low birth rates with long life expectancies is already causing demographic and economic challenges in South Korea. 

Culture Vs. Kids

So how did South Korea get to this point? That brings us back to culture:

  • A sense of competitiveness pervades life in South Korea, especially when it comes to education and work.
  • South Koreans work some of the longest hours in the world. That intense work ethic helped transform the country into an economic powerhouse after the Korean War. But today it’s taking a toll. There’s even a word for death by overwork: gwarosa.
  • Beyond the long hours, though, there’s an attitude in South Korea that “your contribution in the office is really what makes you a person of status and standing in society,” one researcher said.
  • Women also say there’s an unspoken expectation from employers that they will leave their jobs once they have children. Women who do return to work say they’re treated differently.
  • Rising housing costs are also driving down the birth rate, researchers in South Korea found. On top of that, Korea is the most expensive country in the world for childrearing.

When we put all of those factors together, it paints a picture of a culture in which many women and their partners have concluded that having a child simply isn’t worth the tradeoffs.

What Does Your Culture Encourage?

What can we learn from South Korea’s situation? The country’s low birth rate shows us that culture can trump even a fundamental urge for humans: to pass on our genes by reproducing. And, as the South Korean government is learning, even financial incentives to have children can’t override a culture that makes it difficult.

The power of culture isn’t unique to South Korea, though. For all of us, the culture and subcultures we are part of direct our behavior to a huge degree. What behaviors does the culture of your organization reward? What behaviors does it discourage? And do those behaviors align with your organization’s goals and mission?

I’d love to hear your questions and comments. If you would like to discuss this topic further, just drop me a note

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