Kkondae Intern: Can young and old people ever work together?
WARNING: SPOILERS ABOUND.
If your former boss became your intern, how would you react?
Based on the winning script from MBC’s 2018 drama scriptwriting contest, top-rated K-drama Kkondae Intern tackles the issue of office politics and the tensions between age and workplace hierarchy.
The show opens with an elderly man forcing a young man give up his seat to an older lady on the train, with this voiceover: the term kkondae has lately been used to describe a person who forces others to accept their old-fashioned beliefs, regardless of how old they are.
The story revolves around the lives of Ga Yeol Chan (played by Park Hae Jin), an intern at an instant noodle company who was often publicly humiliated and mistreated by his boss Lee Man Sik (played by Kim Eung Soo). He ends up being forced to quit his job.
Five years later, Yeol Chan is now a general manager at a rival company who is highly favoured by his superiors and respected by his team. One day, a batch of interns arrive and one of them is none other than his former nemesis and boss, Man Sik.
Unsurprisingly, Yeol Chan embarks on his revenge mission to get back at Man Sik.
It was uncomfortable to watch how Yeol Chan repeatedly put Man Sik down in front of his team – all of them in their 20s, with Man Sik being the oldest yet lowest in hierarchy.
Man Sik’s younger co-workers viewed him as a party pooper, excluding him from their get-togethers to save themselves from the pain of socialising with an older person.
The reason? “If he joins us, it will just be uncomfortable.”
And to let Man Sik remain completely oblivious about how he’s being outcast, they refer to him as ‘kkontern’, short for ‘kkondae intern’.
I felt humiliated on behalf of Man Sik, but more than that, I was reminded of my own similar experiences with older co-workers.
Sometimes it can be really hard to communicate with an older person. Once, I had an older co-worker ask me about my aspirations in life, only to notice halfway that she wasn’t even listening to my response at all. This became a common occurrence.
And on top of that, she had a habit of deciding where we went and what we ate for our meals and gatherings – every single time.
Naturally, a few of the younger people began to exclude the older lady completely from all our conversations and activities.
It was just easier and more convenient that way. We were happier without her. We were even happier when she eventually quit to focus on her family.
But after she left, I felt really ashamed of myself. What if she quit because she actually felt bullied by us? What if she quit because we made it impossible for her to stay?
Eventually, I wrote that lady a message to apologise for the things that I’ve said or done that might’ve hurt her.
She never replied.
In order to make Man Sik feel bad about his own incompetence, Yeol Chan decides to not assign Man Sik any work.
“Just don’t do anything,” he tells Man Sik.
Upset by Yeol Chan’s continued harsh treatment towards him, Man Sik finally breaks.
“You can teach me. I don’t know how to do this, but you can teach me.”
I felt my cheeks burn with shame when I watched this scene. Regret washed over me as I recounted the times when I hadn’t been the kindest to an older co-worker, brushing them off as “useless” in my mind.
Like Yeol Chan, I thought that it was more bothersome if they tried to do any work.
Did I even consider teaching them? Honestly, no.
I quietly did all their work for them instead, or I just stopped assigning work to them altogether.
But I’ve realised over the years that this isn’t about age. Age-related stereotypes can be pretty off-base these days – you can be young and not know anything too. Not all old people are the same either.
In one episode, Yeol Chan and Man Sik found themselves stranded on an island after the ferry services were cancelled for days due to bad weather conditions.
While Yeol Chan was clearly not prepared for this (the young man only had a credit card on him), Man Sik had a backpack full of essentials – portable charger, food, utensils, extra clothes…and he made sure that Yeol Chan was well-fed and taken care of.
This made Yeol Chan realised that Man Sik wasn’t that useless after all, and there were things that Man Sik was more skilful at.
As the drama develops, we see Man Sik gradually shedding away his past prideful self and signing up for classes to learn some basic computer skills. Yet even at the class, he gets frowned upon by his younger classmates for always asking for help.
One night, after an entire day alone at the computer academy, Man Sik passes by a restaurant and watches forlornly as a group of young workers enjoy a get-together.
I’m all alone now, and it seems like everyone is saying this old man is useless, Man Sik narrates in a voiceover. It was a scary and miserable night.
I think a lot about whether I could’ve been kinder to my older co-workers.
Was I compassionate towards them (Ephesians 4:32)? Did I choose to overlook some of their professional tardiness in grace when the situation allowed for it? Was I silently bearing a grudge against them for not being my ideal type of co-worker?
I was reminded that I, too, had areas that I was absolutely lacking in.
Is there an older co-worker around you that might be feeling this heavy sense of loneliness? In a world that is rapidly evolving in technology, communication styles and work processes, is there someone that has been left behind and is struggling to play catch-up?
If you see anyone struggling in their work, how about being patient with them (Ephesians 4:2)? Ask them if they need help.
Give them opportunities to learn and succeed. Provide them with resources that might help them along the way. Or perhaps you just need to re-evaluate if they are assigned work that plays to their strengths.
Let’s not write people off just because it’s inconvenient to us.
I don’t want to spoil it completely for you, but in a hopeful turn of events, we see Man Sik and Yeol Chan getting to know each other properly (finally).
Man Sik proved that he was not useless (he was once a general manager for decades, after all) in many crises that the team had to face. He also witnessed Yeol Chan navigating through these problems and silently supported him in every step of the way.
I secretly cried when I watched Man Sik apologising to Yeol Chan for hurting him in the past. As Man Sik grabs Yeol Chan’s hand and tells him he’s sorry, Yeol Chan’s cold exterior crumples and he breaks down in tears that he held back for years.
Was Man Sik completely to blame for their fractured relationship in the past? Maybe not. But he knew that the apology was what Yeol Chan needed to be released from self-torment and self-condemnation that he’d been bottling up on his own.
And as Man Sik reflected on his own behaviour towards his subordinates in the past, he humbly recognised that he took people for granted and was too proud to admit his own shortcomings.
He learnt to submit to authority that was placed over him – even if there were times when he disagreed – and chose to stand by Yeol Chan in challenging times.
We also see Yeol Chan’s attitude towards Man Sik soften up and change for the better. This duo eventually finds strength in teaming up and building camaraderie together to go through the ups and downs of working life.
Can young and old people ever work, and work well together? The answer is yes, if we choose to.
How do we navigate these tensions and differences across generations? 1 Peter 5:1-5 instructs us very clearly on mutual submission: “All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another.”
Are there areas in which we can do better to bridge generational gaps and mend fractured relationships with older folks? Are we able to pursue the things that unite us instead of the things that divide us?
Every effort towards unity pleases God (Ephesians 4:3). Even if it is difficult and inconvenient at times.
Let’s choose to love one another just as we have been loved, to show grace just as we’ve been given, to learn to disagree honourably and not be driven by a divisive spirit.
If you’d like to watch it for yourself, Kkondae Intern is available on demand on Oh!K (Starhub TV Ch 816, Singtel TV Ch 525), or is free on Viu.
THINK + TALK
- Is there anyone in your workplace that you can be kinder towards?
- What are some areas in your work that you can be too prideful about?
- Pray for your bosses and your office.