For Koreans just graduating high school and university, getting a job is not much easier than winning Olympic gold, and some young people would say they’ve worked almost as hard as this year’s 2018 Winter Games athletes.
But as the Games finish up, there are still over a million people without work in Korea, many of them young people. The youth unemployment rate is at 11 percent, and there’s no sign of change ahead.
While Western media is obsessed with North Korea, Korean young people don’t really pay much attention to the issue, even though millions of people in South Korean capital Seoul are just a couple of hours’ drive from North Korea, and within range of that country’s weapons.
For young people in Korea, the thought of being jobless or working for low pay is much scarier than North Korea.
“It’s very hard,” says Un Jee, a freelancer and student in her early 20s, speaking about getting a job in Korea.
Un Jee, who has commented for Borderless News Online in the past, is speaking to us on a chilly winter evening in an area in Seoul where university students hang out, drink coffee and alcohol, go out to eat and shop. Couples walk by as they talk to us (click on the video above). The place is teeming with people, bustling around.
“Companies want experience if we want to get a job. Truthfully, people who just graduated university and just starting out don’t have job experience,” she says. “Companies want experience and (young people) don’t have any. So I think it’s hard for younger people,” she says, the light of a neon sign shining on the top of her head, amid loud music played by multiple shops.
Koreans have been angry for years about the rich-poor gap, which many believe is increasing. It’s been talked about so much in Korean media that there’s an expression for it: Gold spoon and dirt spoon. Those born into wealth are born with a gold spoon in their mouths. Those on the bottom are born with a dirt spoon, although there are various degrees in the middle.
“People are dividing between gold spoon and dirt spoon. I think it will become more serious as time passes,” says Sonny, a Korea woman in her late 20s, who works as a freelancer graphic designer.
Korea has the most severe wage gap in Asia, according to the International Monetary Fund, with the top 10 percent earning nearly half of all the nation’s income — the highest wage gap among a group of similar Asian nations. Next come Singapore, Japan, New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia. The wage gap is particularly severe among the elderly.
The wage gap has grown over the years. In 1995, the top 10 percent earned 29 percent of the nation’s income, and was lower than many other Asian nations, including Singapore, Japan and New Zealand. The IMF says the reason is that many companies are hiring fewer full time employees, and relying more on people who work based on a temporary contract. Those people usually earn less and receive less training, which takes away opportunities to move up the ladder.
It’s also likely that many contractors are not considered part of the boys’ clubs that dominate Korean large companies. In large Korean companies, it’s connections and being liked by your boss that get you to the top, and talent may or may not play a role. Contractors usually won’t be part of these old boys’ clubs, where hiring is done in groups, similar to freshmen classes that enter university together and graduate together.
Koreans have for some time been angry that all the earning power is concentrated in the hands of just a few chaebol — the Korean conglomerates that form the backbone of the nation’s economy. While on one hand everyone wants to work for the major conglomerates, on the other hand, Koreans are angry that these giants make it hard or nearly impossible for small companies to compete.
These companies are in bed with government, and dictate their terms to virtually every small or mid size firm in Korea, dictating the terms of contracts that are designed to squeeze smaller companies to ensure the conglomerates stay on top.
That’s one reason why South Korea doesn’t have much of a startup scene, although there are other cultural reasons, such as a tendency of young Koreans to prefer a stable job at a big company, rather than venturing out themselves.
Koreans have a love-hate relationship with these companies. On the one hand, many want the companies to do well, since they rule the economy, and their success means the success ultimately means the success of the Korean economy. Many parents also want their university-age children to work for one of these companies. But at the same time, many complain about that they make life hard for smaller companies, and create an anti-competitive atmosphere that may ultimately stifle job growth.
President Moon Jae In has pledged to ramp up youth employment, but young Koreans Borderless News spoke to still say it’s tough to find a job in Korea.
Moreover, it’s often all or nothing. Some young Koreans spend even a year or two studying for the 6-hour entrance exams required by some conglomerates, and the majority fail. Many take it again and again, living in tiny apartments or with their parents while working part-time jobs at coffee shops or restaurants, hoping to pass the test.
Not working for one of these companies often means working for a small, unstable company. It’s not unusual in Korea for companies to have trouble paying their employees, and Borderless has spoken to young people who’ve gone without pay for months at a time, because the company could’t afford to pay its employees.
This is the 4th year in a row in which Korea’s youth unemployment is in the double digits, and it looks unlikely to change soon.
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