- While the Korean government still does not have an extensive social safety net for its elderly, it has expanded the practicality of private care by changing the structure of work in a family-friendly way. Tweet This
- “Regulating maximum work hours may serve as an effective policy tool for improving the well-being of not just workers and their nuclear families, but also of their extended families.” Tweet This
Shorter legal workweeks in Korea have helped working men give better care to their aging parents, according to evidence cited in a recent research article by Erin Hye-Won Kim, Changjun Lee, and Young Kyung Do. The authors argue this is important for the mental and physical health of both generations, and that the policy even promotes gender equity.
The form of their argument is naturally similar to the rhetoric around work-family reconciliation policies for workers who are rearing children. The parallels are nonetheless striking:
- They ask whether a legislative change can make work and family more compatible, focusing on the specific question of whether regulating a maximum workweek can help workers interact more with their families. In their case, the question is whether working men spend more time with their parents when they are not required to put in long work hours.
- Their concern is fueled by low fertility. While we care about the well-being of children and the elderly, regardless of how many of them there are, part of the reason work-family balance attracts so much attention is that without it, people can’t be expected to have as many children. After low fertility has persisted for awhile, the involvement of each adult child with their parents (and parents-in-law) matters more because fewer adult children have siblings with whom to share elderly care.
- The concern of Kim and her coauthors is further heightened by focusing on a context where caregiving is largely a private responsibility. Just as the U.S. is often singled out as the only advanced democracy without a public provision for paid parental leave, Korea is a familistic society where elder care is largely a private responsibility. So at this point in history, the state is minimally involved in elder care, despite a shortage of siblings and siblings-in-law among adult workers.
Those in the United States seeking work-family balance do, however, have an important advantage over their Korean counterparts—namely a 40-hour workweek. Forty hours doesn’t seem short to any of us who have tried maintaining those hours while providing care to other family members, but it easily beats the 44-hour standard workweek that Koreans had until 2004. That was when the Korean government began reducing its legal workweek, but the changes were not widespread until 2011.
Fortunately, from a statistical point of view, Kim et al. were able to identify the year between 2004 and 2011 in which the legislative change reached individual workers. In short, they were able to identify whether the policy change actually mattered by observing behavior before and after workers were affected. The upshot was that shorter workweeks translated into men visiting their parents more often. The effects were not trivial, with the median number of visits going up from 12 per year to 21, and the average going up from 37.2 to about 90. The authors point out that one of the reasons why these dramatic effects are believable is that a 40-hour workweek allows a 2-day weekend for visiting distant kin, whereas the 44-hour workweek commonly includes a half-day of work on Saturdays.
So, while the Korean government still does not have an extensive social safety net for its elderly, it has expanded the practicality of private care by changing the structure of work in a family-friendly way. This was a preferred intervention in a work-oriented and family-centered culture, and Kim and her coauthors show that it succeeded.
It would be easy to focus on other interventions that aging Korean adults need, but I instead close by emphasizing why this singular change is nonetheless a success story. First, the greater depression and lower self-esteem among older adults living alone are offset by interacting with their non-resident children. Further, children who visit their parents regularly can identify needs before they become consequential for health and well-being. So for the parent’s health, the policy is a win.
The authors also explain that the policy can help contribute to gender equity in a challenging culture where traditional norms about filial piety, high devotion to work, and low fertility conspire to make it natural for husbands to put pressure on their wives to fulfill their own obligations to their parents. Spousal conflict is likely as wives face the same pressures from family, work, and population age structure. The study’s results showed that reducing men’s work hours increased men’s visits to their parents. Thus, the policy seems particularly beneficial for women and for spousal harmony.
The third win is in the lives of the workers themselves. Long work hours interfere with family roles—not just directly because of the time constraint, but also by contributing to physical strain and mental stress. As Kim et al. write, “Regulating maximum work hours may serve as an effective policy tool for improving the well-being of not just workers and their nuclear families, but also of their extended families.” A triple win.
Laurie DeRose is a Research Assistant Professor at the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park and a senior fellow with the Institute for Family Studies. She is also Director of Research for the World Family Map project.