What about average Koreans?
In his recent New York Times column titled, ``Average Is Over,” Thomas Friedman of ``The World is Flat” fame declares the age of the average to be officially over.
He means that the age in which an average worker with an average set of skills could earn an average income and maintain an average lifestyle is over. To borrow his words, ``Being average just won’t earn you what it used to.”
The reasons for this are fairly straightforward. As Friedman would put it, the world has become flat. Business from one country has the ability to tap into the labor base of another that is cheaper, more flexible, and has above average skills. So, if you are an average Joe, your income won’t be going up anytime soon. In fact, you will be lucky to have a job in a few years because automation will probably make your job obsolete.
This has been the macro-dynamics driving the stagnant income levels for the middle class and the stubbornly high levels of unemployment in America. Conversely, this also means that a “super Joe” who runs a business in this flat world would squeeze much more efficiency out of his operations and make tons of more money. This leads to the growing gap between the super Joe and the average Joe that has become almost obscene in recent years and driven popular protests such as the “Occupy” movement.
Although Friedman is writing mostly about the United States, the average Joe phenomenon is worldwide. South of the border, it could be the average Jose. In the Middle East, it’s probably the average Mohammed. And in Korea, it’s the average Cheol-soo and Young-hee, two names synonymous with ``average” Korean boys and girls in elementary textbooks when I was growing up.
A scene I still remember reading in my second-grade textbook was one of Cheol-soo and Young-hee wearing their best hanbok and walking on fresh snow on their way to their grandparents to bow to them for the New Year. I recall with strange clarity the squeaky sounds their shoes made on the new snow and how they always held hands when they walked.
But let’s discuss what would have happened to the average Cheol-soo and Young-hee in real life. They would have started going to after-school hagwon soon after they hit middle school. Wait, no, even before that, since they had to study to pass an exam to get into the best middle schools. Before they even hit puberty, their days would consist of waking up at dawn and coming home after midnight after 16-hour days filled with English lessons, piano lessons, math lessons, and Chinese characters lessons. But all these activities would only be ``average” since all their fellow students did the same.
So, in order to set themselves apart from the average Joes, they would have to go abroad to an English-speaking country for language camps. But soon, even that would not be enough. So, their mom would pack up their belongings and actually emigrate to American or other similar countries to actually go to school there, while their dad would be left behind doing everything he could to support them. Only then would the average Cheol-soo and Young-hee escape their average fate and become super Cheol-soo and Young-hee.
But, no! Even that’s not enough. Everyone now is doing the same thing. So, now Cheol-soo and Young-hee have to go to China to learn Mandarin since that’s the language of the future. In this multicultural, global world, you have to speak at least four languages fluently to escape from average-dom.
Soon, they are juniors in high school. The college entrance exam is staring them in their face. Forget the luxury of sleeping six hours a day. Now, they have to make do with four maximum as they study to get into the SKY schools. To their regular load of extracurricular classes, they now have to add entrance exam prep schools to get ready for that day in December that will decide whether they will be average or super for the rest of their lives. You say that’s a lot of pressure to put on a 17-year old? Welcome to the world, kid. That’s just how it is.
This is the competitive system that we live in. That our children live in. So, what happens to the children whose parents can’t afford all these to make them ``above average?” They will be stuck in a life of quiet desperation characterized more and more by insecurity and disempowerment. All for the crime of being average.
What I want to know is where my choice in all this is? What if I want to just be average and make an average living and live an average life? What if I long to be just average yet support my family and maintain my dignity.
I can’t. Either I become a super Joe or I become insignificant and worthless. Welcome to the flat world.
Jason Lim is a Washington, D.C.-based consultant in organizational leadership, culture, and change management. He has been writing for The Korea Times since 2006. Contact him at email@example.com and on facebook.com/jasonlim2000.