At what age do you gain the right to stop being worked to death? In the last few months, two interesting news stories on opposite sides of the globe have raised this question.
In South Korea, the government had to rethink a plan that would have raised its cap on weekly working hours from the current limit of 52 to 69 after Millennials and Generation Z workers resisted the proposal and said it would destroy their work-life balance and put their health at risk. “Shorter workweeks to boost employee mental health and productivity may be catching on in some places around the world, but at least one country appears to have missed the memo,” CNN reported. The South Korean government had backed the plan to increase workweek hours following pressure from business groups seeking “a boost in productivity,” according to CNN. In South Korea, death by overwork, referred to as gwarosa, is thought to kill a number of people every year.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, in France, earlier this year, President Emmanuel Macron moved to change France’s legal retirement age from 62 to 64, and the nation exploded in protests and riots. The French leader had previously used a special constitutional power to push the reform past legislators without allowing them a vote, a move highly unpopular among much of the country, including various labor unions. “This retirement reform is brutal” and “unjust,” one French trade union declared.
To protest the reform measure, in January, more than 1.1 million people protested in Paris and other French cities. College students, retirees, and even off-duty police officers thronged the streets. Railway workers were on strike. Teachers went on strike. And perhaps most effectively, sanitation workers went on strike, leaving thousands of tons of stinking garbage piled up across the streets of Paris. Other protestors moved through the streets setting fires. But not all aspects of the protests were violent, and some of the more lighthearted elements were shared widely on social media, such as the video clip of protestors marching along trolley tracks with a grill they handcrafted to fit the spacing of the tracks. This allowed them to sell barbeque to other protestors and keep people nourished as they rolled forward through the streets.
And in France, these protests have maintained their intensity. Just a few weeks ago, the Associated Press reported that protests and strikes against the unpopular pension reforms had again gripped the country. Radical demonstrators, the news site reported, intended “to destroy, to injure and to kill.” In response, the Interior Minister deployed 13,000 officers, nearly half of them in Paris. The strikers shut down some of the city’s most popular tourist attractions, including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre Museum.
While people in both France and South Korea shared the goal of not wanting the government to push them to work more, the difference in what citizens defined as too much work was striking. For example, as reported in the Associated Press article, with the prospect of the retirement age being changed from 62 to 64, 26-year-old Clément Saild in Paris commented to a reporter that they wondered “if I will ever retire.” Another French worker, Fabien Villedieu, a 45-year-old railway worker, told the Associated Press in January: “It’s a social issue. Do you want to retire sick, broken, and even some dead? Or do you want to enjoy life?” In France, mind you; the average work week is 35 hours. One has to wonder how much sympathy those workers in South Korea have, facing the prospect of a work week nearly twice as long as the French.
A look at the retirement age in the United States shows the country to have a work ethic somewhere between that of South Korea and France. A post on the webpage of the Social Security Administration points out that in the U.S., the age for retirement benefits has been in the mid-sixties for nearly a century. “The original Social Security Act of 1935 set the minimum age for receiving full retirement benefits at 65,” the post states. In 1983, Congress, citing improvements in the health of older people and increases in average life expectancy, increased the retirement age from 65 to 67. This change took place slowly, over the span of two decades, perhaps a clever way to accustom a country’s population to the change rather than have it thrust upon them, as appears to have been done in France. As many of the country’s protestors have noted, being able to retire at the age of 62 is “central to French society.”
Back in the US, an article on the Senior Living website provides some more interesting context on what has happened to the average retirement age during the last century. “In 1910, life expectancy at birth was only 50 years,” but the average age of retirement from the workforce was 74 years, the article reported. Meaning “retirees in 1910 had surpassed the average life expectancy of a newborn by 24 years before they quit working!” Very few people made it to the age of 74; in fact, in 1910, only about 1 percent of the total population did. As the article points out, this is in contrast to more recent trends, as “by the year 2000, life expectancy at birth” had “increased by 23 years to age 73, and the average age of retirement” had “dropped by 12 years to age 62.”
Of course, the question of when to stop working and just how to live the later years of life is not a new question. It dates back to ancient times. In ancient Greece, according to the site Wondrium Daily, “one was more likely to attain a ripe old age if one was wealthy and led an inactive life.” Meaning those who lived a long time didn’t really work much. And those who did work were often enslaved people and regularly worked to death. As the Wondrium article points out: “It does not come as a surprise that most of the ancient Greeks who led long lives were philosophers and poets, whose lives did not involve strenuous activities.”
Interestingly, there was a social security system in ancient Greece; it just was not reserved for everyone. “In ancient Athens,” the Wondrium article says, “the only people who received state support in old age were the parents of sons who had died in war and women who had given birth to a son after their husband had died.”
The article provides some other fascinating material regarding old age and care in Athenian society. For one, “the state did not have homes for old people, which made their situation more difficult. Athenian law, however, did make some provisions for the elderly by stipulating that their son or sons were legally bound to look after both his/their parents in old age. If the sons failed to do so, they were debarred from ever holding public office.” Also, they were “required to look after grandparents and great-grandparents if they happened to be alive. However, if parents failed to teach their sons a basic skill or had made them become a prostitute, the sons would be released from this solemn and binding obligation.”
Meanwhile, in China, a country known for its hard work ethic, retirement can actually come early. “With legislation allowing female public sector workers to retire at 55, and men at 60, there’s more than enough time for them to take up hobbies, hit the road and travel, get back into the dating scene, or care for grandchildren in the city,” notes a post from earlier this year on the informational site, The World of Chinese. But things were not always this way.
“During the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), for example, every subject over 80 would receive grain, meat, and silk from the government for free,” The World of Chinese article continues. “For officials, some embraced retirement and wrote epic tomes or poignant poetry, some headed back home and farmed until the end of their days, while others still fought to get back into the emperor’s good books and earn a way back into positions of power.”
This sort of treatment seems a far cry from the situation of today in countries like South Korea, where death by overwork, or gwarosa, is a notable phenomenon. In South Korea, the scores of gwarosa cases recorded each year involve heart attacks brought on by overwork and exhaustion, industrial accidents, and sleep-deprived driving.
Japan has had issues of death by overwork too, which in that country is referred to as karoshi. The phenomenon was first formally studied by Keio University sociologist Junko Kitanaka more than thirty years ago. “In the 1990s, stories of mostly middle-aged businessmen working so many hours that they would drop dead from a bodily failure, or opt to end their lives rather than return to the office, were received outside Japan as a peculiar cultural phenomenon,” the technology magazine Wired reported in a 2021 article. Most of these deaths were from heart failure, stroke, or suicide, and many of the victims worked long hours, sometimes 60 or 70 hours per week or more, in the lead-up to their deaths.
“When Kitanaka presented to academic audiences in Europe and North America,” Wired reported, “she says they did not understand the mentality of people who wouldn’t go see a psychiatrist and who were driven to die for work.” But as the article goes on to say, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, it “triggered widespread concerns about the physical and psychological toll of prolonged stress, sleep deprivation, and social isolation.” For example, a 2020 study of 3.1 million workers in North America, Europe, and the Middle East found that the average working day had extended by 48 minutes. And a 2021 study published by the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization found that 745,000 people died in 2016 from stroke and ischemic heart disease as a direct result of having worked at least 55 hours a week.
So, death by overwork appears to be a phenomenon that is real not just for South Korea and Japan but the world at large. “Karoshi culture was a warning,” and “we didn’t listen,” says the Wired article. “Now, it’s a global issue.” Makoto Iwahashi, a member of a Japanese labor rights organization called POSSE, said that “each individual has to be aware that there is a chance that you might be killed by work, so you have to protect yourself.”
One must also ask the very important question—Does longer working hours even lead to better work?
According to an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, last year in Britain, dozens of companies trialed a four-day week. Campaigners said this trial resulted in similar or better productivity and increased staff well-being. Clearly, proper workforce hours and treatment is something worth protesting for~