Like everywhere else in this world, South Korea is suffering from serious joblessness for young workforces (Gen Y/fresh school graduates). The companies’ hiring standard is way too high, competition is steep, and whole lot of young workforces are spending their time working on public office hiring exam and teaching certificate exam. If they are to apply for jobs, almost all of them apply for big-name companies but nothing below that. Elders blame youngs for not being ambitious and applying only to safe jobs. The government recently launched a plan, talking how they will expand the number of jobs on here and there for young candidates (bit out of this topic, but this administration has achieved pretty much nothing despite its all-grand campaigns and planning, so they are just desperate). I read the article, and thought – this won’t do any good. Do they actually know what the problem is, or are they just turning their back and go for easy instant painkiller?
Young Koreans turn for safe jobs because, first, their parents were victims of Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. Meaning, the young Koreans witnessed their father, mother, cousin, uncle, aunt getting fired instantly from their jobs after working many years, and big companies collapsing in a day like a mirage. Watching this, they learned it is possible to be “abandoned” from your “second family” in a blink, no matter how much you gave yourself to the company. ㄱRationally, they care much more about job security than other factors. And what’s safer than public officers and public school teachers? Secondly, the job satisfaction and working condition here is one of the world’s lowest. I linked the average working hours per week graph. Many westerners complain about Japan for overworking – well, Japan is nothing compared to South Korea. Many of this extraneous working hour is caused by noonchee (reading the air) and social hierarchy. Basically, you cannot leave your office before your boss (if you are obviously foreign-looking, this may not apply to you). Even if your boss says there is no help needed and all is fine, you really should not. The moment you do so, you will be secretly labeled as “the impolite brat,” and expect your employer evaluation to suck, even though you did a good job on your project. So you stay and stay before your boss leaves the office at 11 pm. In other cases, your boss assigns some impossible work at 4:30 pm, intentionally, so you all can use the company’s money for dinner. Usually, for occasions like this means the hweshik is coming (social drinking), which can cause some serious trouble if you bail out. In any way, your time in office is forever extended with not much productivity. Of course you don’t have time to spend with your family. Sometimes you have to be in office on weekends, just because your boss texted you saying “hey, I’ll be in the office today.” Even if you have nothing to do, you have to go there so you don’t make your boss as an enemy. Despite this huge sacrifice of your health and privacy, there’s not much job security, and the hiring practices here are not flexible. Many job descriptions here do put age/gender limit openly.
Blue collar works are worse than abovementioned white-collar work. Everything same, just add no social respect, no credit for experience and lower average income. If you look at US or many other industrialized countries, blue-collar workers might start with lower salary than white-collar workers, but as their experience gathers up, your salary rises pretty nicely. It doesn’t really happen here. Who would want to be blue-collar worker here, let alone the white-collar worker?
Then there is another question – why do these young people run to the big name company jobs, despite such low satisfaction and extreme working hours? It is simple – they are choosing lesser evil. While many western countries (and Japan) regard written contract as base of everything and standard manual, Korean business culture tend to see written contract as just a piece of paper a loose agreement/sign of two parties agreed to work together. Due to the globalizing market, this is not so in foreign-Korean contract relationship. However, in domestic it still is. A friend of mine received thick employer contract from well-known Korean company. Since it was thick, she said to her soon-to-be-boss “can I take it to my home and review it with a lawyer, and then sign it? I don’t think it’s fair that you get to discuss it with lawyer beforehand.” Her soon-to-be-boss, rolled his eyes and said “What for? Everyone just sign on it.”
Strictly following contract is often seen as cold and inhumane. Unfortunately, such lack of weight on contact often leads to one party leaching another party – especially in work outsourcing or employer-employee relationship. There is more possibility of you not getting paid on time, taken advantage of, fired instantly without proper procedure, one party canceling order with no early notice, etc. Such problem occurs to lesser degree in bigger companies. In other words, at least you are getting paid on time and it gives a safety barrier in terms of social respect – everything is about “looking good” in Korea. In small to medium-sized companies, not getting paid on time is not hard to find. Big companies are known for taking advantage of their outsourcing companies and not keeping the contract. The contractors don’t even dare to sue or change the contract. They know what will come next from big companies.
In my opinion, the government really should cut the crap out of job expansion program and “the fair society.” What they need to do is (and probably the fastest solution to all problems) is ensuring that all contracts are to be written in detail and followed accordingly. In that way, small-sized companies don’t have to suffer big companies exploitation, employers no longer have to bear unfair working hours (probably), getting paid on time, able to work according to plan, less back-door hidden pressures, and most importantly, thanks to all these outcomes, young Koreans will not do chicken race to the slim door of big name companies, public offices and public school teaching positions. There are just too many free-ride attempts going on, instead of properly giving credit and pay for the service you get. You get what you pay for. Why should demanding proper credit for your service should be a difficult topic? I think the government probably know what is the main problem, but they just want to show off without their hands getting dirty. Seriously, just stop playing with the numbers and blaming all on young people. Shoes off, and get your hands dirty. Otherwise, the government is just a pathetic thief stealing a bell with its ears plugged.
Another suggestion is, take a full control over public education – do it like Singapore and Europe. Adapt a well-standardized government test, and only people who pass it go to college and study academic stuff. The rest goes to vocational training. Unless the government takes total control on this, the crazy obsession about my-kids-have-to-go-to-good-college-and-be-succesful will never go away. Back in 70’s, the government easily granted any kind of college establishment approval. Now there are too many college graduates, yet given the size of this country, there is just not enough capacity to take them all.
By the way, my friend Akli mentioned a lot of these on his recent opinion letter to JoongAng Daily, but of course, given that this is Korea and people don’t like whatever that makes this country looks “bad,” many parts of his original text was edited out. I’m not surprised.