A man surnamed Kim is 30 years old and in search of a job. He took two years off during university to work on construction sites and earn his tuition, which meant he entered the job market later than many of his classmates. He has been trying to find a permanent job for the last two years while juggling part-time work, but has not been successful.
"I can't sleep at night because I'm scared of growing old without finding a job," Kim said.
Unemployment among young Koreans soared to a record 11.2 percent last month, but the real figure is probably much higher at an estimated 23.6 percent including young people who have been unable to find even part-time work. In other words, a quarter of young Koreans are jobless.
Some experts make rosy forecasts that the problem will be resolved simply due to the fact that the working-age population will start shrinking this year due to the persistently low birthrate. These optimists are quick to draw analogies from Japan.
But Korea is faced with very different conditions from Japan, where employment is high among people in their 50s, leading to ample opportunities to fill the positions once they retire. But that is not the case in Korea. Also, small and mid-sized companies in Japan pay wages that are 75 to 83 percent of big conglomerates', but in Korea their wages are only 62 percent, which narrows down the options for young people here.
Around the world, unemployment tends to spike in the early stages of a decline in the working-age population, usually due to low economic growth and a subsequent decline in private consumption as the population shrinks. Korea faces similar woes, and not until 2025 will the decline in the working-age population translate into an easier job market for the young.
People between 25 and 34 face the biggest problem, since they could end up being sidelined by employers in a few years because they are getting older but lack work experience. That means they may never find permanent jobs in a country where employers usually recruit new staff during annual hiring seasons and stipulate a maximum age for applicants. This is usually done to avoid awkward office dynamics where older staff have to report to younger superiors in Korea's anxious Confucian society.
An estimated 1.41 million people face this prospect. Last year, 344,000 people between 25 and 34 were unemployed, and another 197,000 said they gave up looking for jobs and dropped out of the unemployment statistics. Some 323,000 said they did nothing except prepare for job interviews and 548,000 had temporary jobs.
President Moon Jae-in has pledged to impose hiring quotas on businesses and asked the private sector to fill three to five percent of their staff with young workers or pay a fine. But some businesses are already saying they will pay the fine rather than create unnecessary positions.
But the time to dodge the issue is past. Unemployment not only strips away valuable opportunities for young Koreans but deprives the whole of society of valuable labor resources. We need a grand creative bargain between the government and businesses to solve this problem.
Read this article in Korean