June 21, 2023
SEOUL – South Korea may not be the birthplace of coffee and cafe culture, but its passion for both is extraordinary, rivaling that of cafe meccas such as Italy and France.
Cafes are found in almost every nook and corner of Seoul, as well as elsewhere throughout the country. A common sight in these establishments is individuals occupying tables meant for four, engrossed in their intellectual activities, predominantly studying, with their headphones plugged in.
These individuals are called “cagongjok,” a blend of the words “cafe,” “gongbu” (studying) and “jok” (tribe). The term directly translates to “a tribe of people who study at cafes,” and these cafe-goers are currently the subject of intense debate in Korea.
Recently, the controversy was further fueled by a cafe owner’s complaint over customers bringing not only their laptops but also printers to set up a makeshift office.
Where did cagongjok come from? What do they reveal about Korean culture? Here, we explain this phenomenon piece by piece, starting with “ca,” the first part of the word.
“Ca” as liminal space
The residential landscape of Korea’s urban centers provide convenience, with housing complexes and shopping areas arranged in close proximity.
In this environment, cafes are easily accessible, offering individuals the opportunity to change their physical surroundings to optimize their study and work environment.
Choi, a resident of a studio apartment, prefers to separate his living space from his workspace.
“Whenever I return home after work, I can’t help but succumb to laziness,” he told The Korea Herald.
For him, the allure of a cafe lies in its environment free of the distractions at home.
“Distance is also a crucial factor in my choice of a cafe. The closest one to my residence is a mere two-minute walk away. That’s where I always go to study,” said Choi, who only wanted to be identified by his surname.
A 20-something office worker surnamed Kim, who recently moved into a studio apartment, finds his room too stuffy and cramped for any productive activity.
“I prefer working in a spacious cafe where I can foster creativity. Being surrounded by other people who are studying and working also helps me stay focused,” he said.
Situated in between solitude and communal ambiance, cafe regulars work alone while simultaneously being with other people — an almost paradoxical juxtaposition.
They are in a psychologically ambiguous space between the social atmosphere of a cafe and personal seclusion.
Lee Eun-hee, professor of consumer studies at Inha University, expands on this phenomenon, noting the inclination of younger generations to seek out cafes for studying and work as a means of immersing themselves in a social environment.
“Cafes serve as a haven of social comfort for individuals living alone, compensating for the absence of direct interpersonal interactions,” she said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
“Moreover, in the presence of other people, these cafe-goers create their own enclosed physical and psychological space for studying, with the help of noise-canceling headphones.”
“Gong” as self-development
Putting the cagongjok phenomenon into perspective also provides a fresh perspective on the act of studying, or gongbu.
Cafes are not only popular among students, but also among those in their 20s and 30s who enthusiastically utilize them as work and study spaces.
A study conducted by the job search platform Job Korea shed light on the practices of self-improvement among office workers from the so-called MZ generation, which refers to millennials and Generation Z born between 1981 and 2005.
Of the 182 participants surveyed, 3 out of 5 used cafes for work and studying.
Notably, 37.2 percent of the respondents used cafes to study foreign languages, marking the highest percentage. This is followed by 32.2 percent who focused on gaining expertise in specific fields and 31.4 percent who aimed to obtain career certifications.
Almost half of the respondents view these efforts as a means of cultivating their overall competence.
Even after graduating from institutes of higher education, many individuals are motivated to become better versions of themselves.
According to professor Lee, this trend not only has to do with the hypercompetitiveness of Korean society, but also the flexible working hours and workspaces of the digital era, where technological advancements have empowered individuals to study and work in almost any location, with cafes serving as a popular choice.
“Jok” as cafe enthusiasts
Cagongjok came into existence due to a combination of factors, notably the widespread availability of cafes and advancements in technology that facilitate studying and working remotely.
But the exponential growth in their numbers has reached a point where it poses a threat to the businesses of cafe owners.
According to a 2021 survey conducted by Hankook Research, 29 percent of the 1,000 respondents had engaged in solitary tasks at cafes in the past year. Notably, 60 percent of those in their 20s reported taking part in the “cagong” experience.
When asked about their reasons for studying at cafes, nearly half of the respondents mentioned a lack of alternative places to go, while a majority of those in their 20s expressed a fondness for the relaxed ambiance and the availability of snacks and beverages.
Considering that 48 percent of the respondents claimed to have spent less time studying and working at cafes compared to pre-pandemic times, it is expected that the number of “cagongjok” has increased following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions.
A 28-year-old graduate student, surnamed Yoo, has been frequenting local cafes since his college years. In an interview with The Korea Herald, Yoo said that his preference for cafes over home comes from the cozy confines of cafes, which are conducive to studying, and the brain-stimulating effects of coffee.
“I need a dedicated space to concentrate on my work. Coffee helps wake my brain up and enhances my productivity,” Yoo stated. He typically orders a cup of coffee priced at 4,500 won ($3.5) and spends approximately three hours at the cafe.
According to data from the Korea Food Industry Research Institute in 2019, cafes reach their break-even point when customers spend around 4,100 won on coffee while staying for roughly one hour and 42 minutes.
Cafe owners are also expected to face greater challenges in sustaining their businesses due to rising electricity rates caused by increasing global energy costs, as well as the mounting losses of Korean utility firms.
A cafe owner who runs a cafe near a university campus in Seoul expressed concerns about the upcoming summer, anticipating higher utility fees.
“I am worried about the escalating utility expenses,” said the owner, who gave his last name as Park.
During midterms and final exam periods, the cafe experiences a surge in the number of cagongjok, which is likely to result in a decline in revenue.
Park mentioned that if necessary, he might implement measures to mitigate financial losses, such as posting notices requesting customers to purchase a drink and one type of bread or snack.
His cafe sells Americanos at a relatively low price of 1,900 won.
Professor Lee highlighted the significance of customers being considerate of other people’s businesses, stating, “Using cafes as work and study spaces is acceptable as long as customers take into account the well-being of others. It is essential for them to be mindful of the appropriate duration of their stay relative to their purchases at the cafe.”