HELP WANTED only those under 29 need applyHan Jung-hoon is experiencing what many young Koreans call a “quarter-life crisis.” The 29-year-old student is already past the age limit for many entry-level jobs.
“I feel like I’m a victim of circumstances,” says Mr. Han, a graduate student at Korea University. “Few countries outside Asia have rules like this.”
As an undergraduate student at Yonsei University, Mr. Han considered a career in film direction. Then he switched to art criticism in graduate school. And finally, after writing several feature stories, he decided that he wanted to become a journalist.
Only now he’s facing age limits for entry-level posts as he studies for the journalism exam that he must pass to apply for a job. “I spent a couple of years studying for the university entrance exam and another couple years in the military,” he says. “By the time I was ready to spread my wings and reach my goals in life, I was already 27.”
Mr. Han is paying the price for experimentation. In Korea’s regimented society, students are expected to choose a path in life, stick to it and enter the work force as soon as possible after completing their schooling.
Because of his age, Mr. Han knows there’s no guarantee that a company will hire him even if he passes the exam.
The average age limit for entry-level posts at many of Korea’s leading companies is 28 for men and 25 for women, according to Scout, an employment portal site.
Mr. Han is hardly alone. Each year, roughly 80,000 university graduates are rejected by Korean companies because they’re too old to apply for junior-level jobs, according to Kim Nong-ju, a counselor at Yonsei’s student employment center.
“Students often hold high expectations for their first job and feel their prospects are greatly diminished if they can’t get the post they want or it doesn’t meet their expectations,” Mr. Kim says. “They often feel discouraged when real-life circumstances aren’t so kind.”
Some students feel it’s time for a change. Roughly a third of job seekers say they want companies to remove unfair restrictions in their recruitment notices, notably age, according to a recent poll by Scout.
Korean law bars discrimination due to sex, marital status, political position or age without “a practical reason.” That loophole in Article 30 of the National Human Rights Commissions Act gives employers the right to find reasons to post age limits in their employment notices.
The practice of establishing age qualifications limits the number of applicants, a necessary tool to find the right candidate for specific positions, many companies contend. It also makes legal recourse difficult.
“Based on the abstract notions of equality stated in the human rights law, it’s questionable whether the court could punish a company for discriminating against a person’s age, even if the company admitted that they didn’t hire a person due to the applicant’s age,” says Kwon Ho-an, the secretary of the labor standards department at the Ministry of Labor.
Mr. Kwon adds that there’s considerable debate as to whether it’s appropriate for the government to interfere with a company’s hiring process since hiring workers is part of a firm’s administration and determines its economic future.
Even when employers don’t list age restrictions in their recruitment notices, it often is an important factor in the screening process.
Kim Yeon-ju, a graduate of Korea University, who landed his first job at the ripe age of 30, said he was passed over by many companies despite high grades and test scores because he was deemed too old for entry-level posts.
“Whenever I had an interview, there were always questions about my age,” says Mr. Kim, who now works as an administrator for Doosan Corp. “The interviewers always focused on why it took me such a long time to graduate.” Mr. Kim switched majors while he was at Korea University.
The average age of a Korean woman applying for an entry-level post is 24 and the average age for a man is 27, due to military obligations and schooling, according to Scout. That means they have one year before hitting Korea’s entry-level glass ceiling.
And yet, the age of applicants is expected to grow older as more young people opt for advanced degrees or study overseas, often to get a better score on their TOEIC (Test of English for International Communication) exam.
Surprisingly, the age limit for entry-level posts is actually falling.
The age requirement for a national government exam to fill administrative posts used to be 35. Three years ago, it was lowered to 32.
Companies, meanwhile, are encouraging students to submit applications while they are still in school. And while employers seem to be more open about gender, marital status and academic background, many are hanging onto age limits when hiring.
The situation has led to some unusual behavior on campus. Rather than concentrate on class work, many students are studying for government exams to obtain professional licenses, particularly for teaching and accounting, since it gives them more options. And many students are spending their weekends hunched over keyboards, drafting resumes to submit before they graduate from school.
“Age restrictions are like a bulldozer in Korean society,” says Choi Won-chang, 27, a senior majoring in business administration at Sogang University. “We’re forced to follow a standardized life. If you lose your one shot, the chance never returns.”
Campus employment centers are filled with students who are concerned about the age limits.
“Companies often view the older students’ age as a sign of laziness or inability,” says Seo Yeon-sun in Sogang University’s Office of Job Information, where about 40 to 50 students get career counseling each day. Many are older students who returned to Korea after studying abroad or entered college late because they took a couple extra years of studying to pass the university’s entrance exam.
“Korean companies tend to prefer younger employees because they’re naive, good-natured and obedient,” Ms. Seo says. “There’s an underlying assumption that order is best maintained when there’s a notable age gap between new hires and their bosses.”
Some companies are changing, seeing the value in older entry-level workers, who tend to be more mature and whose experiences have helped them develop analytical skills. GM Daewoo Motor recently removed its age restrictions for applicants in the areas of marketing, trade and finance. E-land, a textile manufacturer, has also stated that the applicant’s ability is its only basis for hiring.
“Many companies are beginning to recognize that age is a meaningless condition to gauge the applicant’s capability,” said Choi Byung-ho, a spokesman for LG Electronics, which stopped considering age as an issue throughout its entire screening process a few years ago.
But in some fields, the situation remains unchanged. Most major broadcasting corporations, for example, continue to place age restrictions on entry-level positions.
“The whole idea of recruiting employees for entry-level positions is so that we can bring in young blood,” says Yun Won-ju, a spokesman at the Korea Broadcasting System.
KBS’s policy recently backfired when it posted recruitment notices on university Web sites stating it was looking for males born after 1972 and females born after 1974. Angry students responded by sending hundreds of complaints to their college recruitment sites.
“There was serious consideration for the decision about our age limit,” Mr. Yun says in defense of KBS’s age ceiling. “Setting an age limit is a necessary condition for the natural integration of an organization.”
Companies often see no reason to change their hiring polices because there are so many young, bright applicants looking for work, says Park Jong-min of Recruit, another employment portal site.
“If companies decided to do away with age restrictions entirely, the practice could actually result a greater waste of young talent since the companies staffs are already aging,” said Mr. Park in defense of the current system.
Meanwhile, Mr. Han, who is studying for the journalism exam, criticizes the lack of foresight among Korean companies.
“The age restrictions are a remnant of the hierarchical and militaristic traditions of Korean culture,” Mr. Han says. “It’s this old mentality that still controls all sectors of our society.”
by Park Soo-mee, Gloria Cha