Friday, September 7, 2012

Korea: Psychotic Gangnam Style

"Where did these cars come from?"
Gangnam Style.  49,000,000 hits on YouTube!  Have you seen it?  It’s psychotic.  It’s the new Korean pop (K-pop) music video by Psy (short for Psychotic) that parodies the lifestyle in Gangnam (the most chic district of Seoul, South Korea).

I worked in Korea for 26 months.  Our team worked to transform one of Korea’s largest public companies.  We used innovation as a lever to engage employees and open the organization to new possibilities.  The more I understood what was happening outside our office the more effective I became inside. 

Gangnam Style lays open the schizophrenic culture of Korea.

I don’t claim to be an expert in interpreting Gangnam Stlye.  There are many others who have done this.  What I do see is that Psy is bringing out the vast cultural under currents in Korea.  For example, the video opens with him playing on a beach, which turns out to be a children’s sand box.  This is interpreted as a caricature of life in Gangnam where material excess is nothing more than a hollow imitation of hollow lives.

Psy has a point.  I have worked in most regions of the globe and I can’t think of a country with as much internal turmoil as Korea; turmoil that could explode.  Let’s take a brief look at modern Korea.

In 1960 the average per capita income of Koreans was $100.  Today (although I see lots of different figures) that number is in the range of $30,000 – compare that to something like $40,000 in the US.  The exact figures aren’t important.  What is important is the rocketing economic growth that took place in Korea over just a few decades.  The most accelerated time of growth was 1960 to 1997 – this is known as the Miracle on the Han (the river that runs through Seoul and much of the country).  Since 2000 the Korean economy has had steady annual growth - in the 2% to 4% range.  Korea is now the 15th largest economy in the world.

Just think of what this exceptional economic growth means to this country of 48,000,000 people and the impact it is having on a country that is now experiencing aging at a pace that is unprecedented in human history.  The percentage of Koreans 65 (born in 1947 or earlier) and above has sharply risen from 3.3% in 1955 to 10.7% in 2009.  Korea's population shape has changed from a pyramid in the 1990’s to a diamond in 2010.  The top of the diamond is an aging class that knows starvation and poverty coming out of the Korean War; the young class knows prosperity and the materialism of the west; people torn between these two worlds populate the middle of the diamond.

Although the middle is torn, it is also the layer that keeps the country politically stable and economically prosperous.  Above them are their parents who rarely greet their peers with: “How are you?”  It’s more likely that they ask, “Did you eat today?”  The parents are steeped in the teachings of Confucius with its hierarchy of respect and deference flowing from king to teacher to father.

Below the middle are the youth.  This is a wholly brand conscious, hip layer that is rejecting the past.  They see that their parents and other elders have sacrificed but now the young want to benefit from the prosperity of the nation.   Big shifts are evident in the attitudes of women who are well educated, have good jobs, and resist giving up Zara and Gucci for marriage and children.  Oh yes, obesity is becoming an issue as abundance and western food chains hit the streets.

The people in the middle recognize the strictness of the past.  They want to tone down the education system where scholastic high school seniors study 18 hours a day 7 days a week.  They also recognize that deference to the ideas and traditions of their elders is not progressive.  This is an anachronistic society.  The middle has to tie together kimchi (vegetables marinated underground for a year) and street carts with bullet trains and 103% penetration of cell phones.

So, when I see Psy in his energetic gyrations I see someone who is channeling the undercurrents in his country.

Where’s it going?  I don’t know.  The top of the diamond is stifling; the bottom of the diamond is unstable; the middle is getting tired of the straddle.  Soon Korea will need another Miracle on the Han.

Oh well, don’t worry; be happy; watch Gagnam Style.

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