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The common saying “Some things never change” does not always apply. Particularly in South Korea. When I first came to South Korea back in 1972, the country was in the midst of the mighty industrialization program that the president at the time, the autocratic general Park Chung-hee, had launched after he seized control in 1961. As the economy surged on the back of industrialization, there were jobs aplenty.
Granted, discrimination based on gender was rife, and women were able to find work mostly in panuljil kongjang – which literally translated means “needlework factories,” but actually meant textile plants, many of them sweatshops – that were common in many cities. Women who were university graduates did take jobs in teaching, but those who did not achieve that level were destined at best for work in textile mills, in other light manufacturing jobs, or as farmworkers.
Men who had university degrees had much better options in the job market than women, since they could take managerial jobs in the manufacturing plants. They could also work in education, at schools and universities, and even those schools and universities that were exclusively for female students relied heavily upon male teachers and professors.
Males who lacked degrees did almost all the manufacturing jobs in the nascent steel, shipbuilding and automotive-sector jobs, as well as clerical jobs in industry and in the public sector.
Economically if not politically, those were good times for Korean men. Anyone who had a primary-school education could get a job at a factory; those with tertiary education could walk straight from their graduation right into a managerial career in the family-run conglomerates that came to dominate the economy. And back then, these were all seen as “jobs for life.”
Fast-forward to today, and things have changed radically.
In today’s South Korea, nearly 80% of all students are in higher education. This has created a far higher percentage of students in higher education than in the United States or the United Kingdom. The downside is that, for all too many, finding a job after graduation that fits their career aspirations is nearly impossible. Because of the lack of careers – and lack of futures – many young people have taken to characterizing their nation as “hell.”
The difficulties for young graduates can be summed up in the experience of one of the baristas at the Starbucks in my neighborhood in Seoul. “Charlie” – his English nickname – was downbeat.
“Although I am a university graduate, I am working full-time at Starbucks because finding a job at a chaebol without baek [connections or influence] is next to impossible.”
His colleague on the morning shift was a young university student working at Starbucks on a part-time basis, but was equally discouraged about the possibility of stepping on to a career path after graduation.
Older people face a different problem. They enjoyed decent white-collar careers but now that the “jobs for life” concept no longer pertains, find themselves forced into retirement in their mid- to late 50s. Back on the job market, they find their employment prospects equally bleak: Many operate mom-and-pop stores, or drive taxis.
An owner-driver cabbie described the situation. “We older Koreans do have employment opportunities in driving cabs or in owning or managing convenience stores,” said Woo Pan-cheol. “But it is difficult to find a regular job with a company, and many have to rely upon their savings to invest in a small business.”
Every Seoul cabbie to whom I spoke this week echoed Woo’s lament that older Koreans – much like new graduates – are shunned in the job market.
One plus side is that foreign employers who do not have the gender prejudices of many Korean employers have the pick of a highly educated female workforce
Then there is the gender divide. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), South Korea has one of the lowest female workforce participation rates. Korean companies tend to hire men first; women form a distinct minority of employed Koreans (bar in the education and civil-service sectors).
One plus side is that foreign employers who do not have the gender prejudices of many Korean employers have the pick of a highly educated female workforce.
“We like hiring women at our firm because we have seen that they are highly motivated to succeed and prove that they can do a good job for us,” said Eric Thorpe, co-managing director of Edge Communications, a public relations agency. “In part, that might be because local employers have overlooked them in the past.”
One female executive, Ji-Yeon Kim, a director at IRC Consulting in Seoul, said: “Women in Korea often prefer to work for government entities because they offer more opportunities to be hired in the first place, and then afterwards a better chance to develop their careers than they would have at many private Korean companies, including chaebol-related companies.”
Peter Underwood, the managing director of IRC Consulting and an expatriate with many years of experience in Korean business, said: “Many Korean graduates fail to find employment and then wind up starting graduate studies in Korea or abroad as a result.” This becomes a financial burden on their families, who have to continue supporting these students with tuition payments and living expenses.
In the 1970s and ’80s, the choices and options available to young Korean graduates were so abundant that it was reflected in their attitudes. I recall asking one university student back then why he wore a jacket and tie to class every day. He answered, “Because I don’t want people to think that I work in a factory.” Although it was only a part-time job, he did not want to be seen as a blue-collar worker.
In the intervening years, South Korea’s economy has matured, chaebol have offshored, and the supply of jobs has slowed, even while the number of graduates has risen.
This has made huge differences in terms of professional and social expectations. The Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s leading newspaper, recently ran an article about a group of recent graduates who are learning tiling and wallpapering in order to work as professionals in the construction sector. This would have been unthinkable previously.
Likewise, today, countless students are eager to take part-time work in restaurants, coffee shops and elsewhere, jobs their predecessors would have sniffed at.
The hope is that work experience, however basic, is advantageous when applying for a more aspirational position. The question is how many white-collars careers now exist to service South Korea’s massively increased pool of graduates, and its rising class of underemployed seniors.