TOKYO — Is sharing after-work drinks with co-workers key to climbing the corporate ladder? Not necessarily, according to researchers from the University of Tokyo, who focused on the drinking habits and economic success of working men in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. Study authors report those who can drink more do not appear to be in a better financial position than their non-drinking or less social colleagues.
Heading to the local bar or restaurant for a drink after work is fairly common in the United States, but in East Asia social drinking with colleagues is much more ubiquitous and many view it as an important way of building professional relationships and connections. The research team says their findings will likely come as a relief to those who don’t want to drink just to get ahead. Moreover, close to half the population of East Asia has some level of intolerance to alcohol.
In East Asia, drinking parties among companies attempt to build trust and relationships between bosses and subordinates, and discuss work topics more candidly than in the office. This joint study between researchers in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea, however, indicates that drinking more doesn’t necessarily lead to extra financial benefits at work.
“We found no justification for drinking for the purpose of improving labor market outcomes,” says Professor Daiji Kawaguchi, an economist from the Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Tokyo, in a media release. “Despite the widespread perception that drinking is important for business communication in East Asia, we did not find evidence supporting the idea. Health research has already found that there is no benefit of heavy alcohol consumption in terms of improving health outcomes, so I think this is important knowledge for when a person decides to drink or not.”
So, do drinkers really prosper?
Researchers surveyed roughly 3,500 men (ages 25-59) from Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea using a list of 45 questions, including inquiries regarding health, drinking habits, finances, and weekly working hours. Participants also self-checked their alcohol tolerance using a simple stick-on alcohol patch test. The team was especially interested in Asian males for two reasons: work-related drinking culture, and AFS (alcohol flush syndrome). AFS has a connection to a genetic inability to digest alcohol that results in people’s faces turning red while drinking, as well as headaches, sickness, and other symptoms.
“We wanted to find out if a wage premium existed for those with a higher alcohol tolerance,” Prof. Kawaguchi explains. “Although our results showed that alcohol-tolerant men do drink more often and more each time than alcohol-intolerant men, there was no significant difference across the three populations in terms of working hours or earnings between them.”
Roughly 52 percent of the respondents in Japan and Taiwan and about 60 percent in South Korea were alcohol intolerant, which the researchers say is consistent with figures reported in medical literature.
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Young people are actually drinking less
It’s important to note that this project had some limitations due to the South Korean sample size being smaller (around 500 people) in comparison to the Taiwanese (1,000) and Japanese (2,000) groups. The South Korean sample also only focused on the capital city of Seoul and included a disproportionate number of college-educated respondents (92%) in comparison to the national educational average.
“We would like to do a similar analysis again,” Prof. Kawaguchi comments, “but next time with a much larger data set and in collaboration with other specialists, to look in more detail at genome bank data and alcohol digestive ability in combination with socioeconomic outcomes.”
Generally, young people living in high-income countries nowadays are trending towards drinking less. In 2022, Japan’s National Tax Agency even encouraged the nation’s youth to start drinking more (due to declining tax revenues).
“I enjoy social drinking despite my intolerance to alcohol,” Prof. Kawaguchi concludes. “However, no one should be pressured to drink.”
The study is published in Health Economics.