Worried workers taking refuge in the classroomWon Young-woong was on top of the world in 2001. Fresh out of college, Mr. Won was lucky enough to find a work at Samsung in a tight job market. Ready to pledge loyalty to his dream company, Mr. Won bid good-bye to his life as a student.
After three years, however, Mr. Won had the urge to get back into a classroom. As a Korean literature major who works for an insurance company, Mr. Won feels limited. “It did not take long for me to see that my lit major background was not a great help for me to achieve success in an insurance company. I was, and still am, in dire need of moving ahead,” he says.
So every Saturday, Mr. Won packs his books and heads to his alma mater, Korea University in northern Seoul, and takes a seat in the library, the last place he expected to be after graduating. Working by day and studying by night, Mr. Won proudly calls himself a saladent. A newly coined word by Koreans, it is a combination of “salary man” and “student.”
The emergence of the saladent coincides with a sense of unease about the economy. Koreans joke that the 38th parallel refers to the new age of retirement, and the unemployment rate remains discouraging.
Such stark realizations about job prospects have workers hitting the books again to remain competitive. “When an individual has to play a Superman role, saladents are becoming a hot social trend in Korea,” says Hyun Young-un at Job Korea, an online job-searching agency.
“In the past, once you made it to a company, that was it,” Ms. Hyun says. “Everything was guaranteed only if you remained faithful to your company. Those good old days are passe. This saladent fad tells us that it has become harder for those who already have jobs, let alone the jobless.”
For Mr. Won, whose motto is “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” being a saladent is not an option; it’s a must.
“It’s to win in this survival of the fittest,” Mr. Won says, at a cafe near his workplace last Saturday afternoon. Next to him sits his backpack full of books for a tax accountant exam, Mr. Won’s most recent goal after earning more than 10 certificates in different fields. He has licenses to be a financial planner, real estate agent, foreign exchange dealer and financial analyst, just to name a few.
“I feel the urge for self-improvement even more whenever I see senior employees failing to adapt to the new situation,” Mr. Won says. “They are just so accustomed to the old times. The best they can do is drink the night away with colleagues. As a result, they are now about to be weeded out. I’m not going to be one of them.”
On weekdays, Mr. Won wakes up at 5:30 a.m. and starts his day with English lessons at home before going to work. By 8 a.m., Mr. Won is seated at his place at work, earlier than the usual start time of 9 a.m., for online lectures provided by the company. After getting home by 8 p.m., another study session lasts until midnight.
“I get up on Sunday morning pretty late,” Mr. Won says, which means sleeping until 10 a.m. at the latest.
This grueling daily routine sometimes draws complaints from his friends and family. “It’s like being a widow sometimes,” his wife says. But she is his biggest supporter. “After all, he is doing his best to win in this wild world. And I respect his efforts.”
Obtaining a series of certificates, however, does not mean that he will quit his job at Samsung. “I just want to prove my potential,” Mr. Won says. “I feel even addicted to achieving more and more certificates.”
Mr. Won may seem well-prepared for anything, armed with all his qualifications, but he says he has a long way to go, especially when he sees new recruits. “Most of the newcomers these days are pretty much already equipped with certificates and competent in foreign languages.”
Ms. Hyun at Job Korea confirms this, saying college students these days start working for certificates and English qualifications from their freshman year.
Doesn’t Mr. Won feel that he’s spreading himself too thin? He agrees, saying it’s likely, but it’s inevitable in order to keep up with the times.
Mr. Won sees more studying in his future. After getting certified as tax accountant, he wants to go global by passing the exam of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. In five years, Mr. Won wants to go to a graduate school to study business administration.
“Only God knows what I will be doing in 20 years,” he says. “One thing is clear, though: Whatever I do, I’d still be improving myself to widen my career path.”
Mr. Won’s objective is to work as a private property manager at Samsung, even though he knows well that the era of a lifelong workplace is over. “To move on to the major leagues, I have to go through hard times of transitions. Being a saladent in this sense can be a shortcut,” Mr. Won says.
For all of his optimism, it’s less uncertain whether Mr. Won’s confidence in his studies will pay off later.
“All those certificates, if they are related to your work, may help a little, but expecting more than a little attention is too much,” Ms. Hyun says. “Companies these days prefer experience to licenses.”
Mr. Won is not alone in putting his faith in his studies. Most of Mr. Won’s coworkers are also saladents, some going to night school, others studying for qualifying exams. Mr. Won and coworkers have formed joint study sessions and group discussions.
If Mr. Won chose to be a guru in certificate examinations, Kim Bum-suk, a 35-year-old staff member at a major phone-service company, settled for a more conventional way ― going to a nighttime graduate school. Majoring in advertising and public relations at Yonsei University’s graduate school program, Mr. Kim has burned the midnight oil, which has not been easy. But he says he has no regrets. “Meeting a new circle of people at a graduate school has helped me at work as well,” Mr. Kim says.
Unlike Mr. Won, self-improvement isn’t what he seeks. “My ultimate goal within the next five years is to transfer to another job. Being a saladent to cultivate my own network would give me a jump start,” he says.
Kim Tae-jong, a staff member at Yonsei’s nighttime graduate school of business administration, has seen workers in their 40s and 50s signing up for courses in the last few years. “But 30-somethings still make up the majority. Those who take the course are planning ahead for future rainy days,” he says.
Saladents, however, are not only younger workers. Kim Jong-wook, 50, an editor in chief at Catholic Publishing Company, started his studies in journalism at Yonsei’s nighttime graduate school in the fall.
“I know it’s kind of late for me to go to a school, but I’ve felt this urge to better myself,” Mr. Kim says. “Being a saladent was also a way to earn respect from my subordinates.”
Mr. Kim will reach retirement age in a few years, but he still needs to polish his career. “I want this master’s degree for my post-retirement age, when I’d like to teach at undergraduate schools,” he says.
Professionals have various motives to be a saladent, but they share the phone company employee’s sentiment: “It’s a tough world. Times are changing fast. If you don’t make yourself ready, you might be swept away before you know it.”
by Chun Su-jin