Once among Asia’s brightest economies, South Korea has slowed its growth in recent years, leaving such a strong impact on the nation’s youth as jobs become scarce.
As a recent NPR episode highlighted, even those who spent years of diligently studying for tests are now struggling to find decent work. Currently, around 11.3% of Koreans aged 15 to 29 do not have a source of income, accounting for almost three times the country’s overall jobless rate.
Lim Hyuk-ju, for example, graduated at the top of her high school class but is still unable to get hired at age 25. Her parents are currently supporting her further education as she continues to pursue her dream of landing a job in one of the country’s top companies.
She treads the all-too-familiar path of South Koreans who spend extended years of studying, even after graduation, just to pass exams required by local conglomerates.
“All these tests, and memorizing the right answers,” Lim tells NPR. “I sometimes wonder if this is really the only way to succeed.”
While reviewing for the tests, she currently lives in a $400 a month housing unit for students called a “goshiwon” in Seoul, the country’s capital. The 30 square foot apartment is furnished with a bed and a closet with a communal bathroom and kitchen for all residents. Lim would rather endure the sacrifices, for now, just to be able to land that coveted job at a huge company.
These young jobseekers “are the product of an extremely unequal and unstable society that has concentrated all of its wealth and resources in the chaebol (conglomerates),” wrote Sungkonghoe University in Seoul sociology professor Kim Dong-chun.
In an economy run by huge conglomerates, there is very little room for other businesses to grow. Small businesses are usually forced to yield to the demands of bigger businesses or assimilate for survival.
The resulting environment provides very few job opportunities for South Koreans, according to anthropologist Geoffrey Cain.
“They’re just giant conglomerates that control so much of the economy on a scale just not seen in a lot of the world,” Cain was quoted as saying.
He noted that smaller businesses are mostly controlled by the few.
“They can basically tell a small business to supply them a part and just pay them whatever they want, and then pay them whenever they want, and give them a terrible contract.”
This leaves many Korean youths vying for jobs with companies like Samsung and Hyundai. The demand for job opportunities has allowed the large corporations to impose tough tests to further filter the applicants. Samsung reportedly has its own version of the SAT, while Hyundai requires an arduous six-hour exam, just to be considered for a spot.
Many Koreans, like Lim in her tiny apartment, study for years to submit themselves to such exams.
Observers are now hoping that the new administration not only places its focus on creating more public sector jobs but also assist in alleviating the condition of small businesses.
“Job creation should be [by] business, not the government,” Seoul’s Hanyang University professor and economist Kim Gwang-Suk explained. “In the long term, all the government should do is make an environment in which companies can invest more.”