[SERI COLUMN]Teach the leeches how to pay their wayAny working person who took a day off and walked one of the ritzy parts of Seoul in the afternoon may have wondered about it. Too many young women and men in their early and mid-20s are on the streets doing nothing but socializing at pricey restaurants and elegant clothiers. “Geez, people work on weekdays,” you may have exclaimed to yourself.
Some of them may be college students, while others may be young workers at nearby office buildings out for lunch. But it is not hard to imagine that a significant portion of them are those jobless after recently graduating from college.
The 1997 currency crisis and an ensuing era of austerity improved the hiring practice of large corporations. They no longer announce annual recruiting plans for college graduates who could, in the past, have been hired with relative ease. Regardless of whether the applicant had necessary job skills, anyone with a degree from, say, any of the top-20 colleges could have been hired and started climbing up the corporate ladder. Barring serious blunders on the job, they were somehow guaranteed their positions until retirement. But that’s not the case anymore.
Now companies require them to have prior experience as an intern or temp. Instead of responding to such changes, the young army of would-be workers gives up on the job search without even trying. While their aspirations are high, the world can’t offer them what they want.
In many cases, they opt to live the life of a “perpetual student” preparing for state exams or some promising-looking license exams, which is nothing other than “disguised unemployment.” Some college graduates attend cram schools for aptitude tests like the GRE, GMAT and LSAT to seek advanced degrees in the United States, a highly expensive proposition for their parents.
These young unemployed are seen in many places such as posh Italian restaurants in Gangnam where a meal easily costs $100 for two. They fill up the movie theaters and shopping malls. They wear brand-name clothing and shoes and flash the latest-model phones all the time. No wonder TV commercials and other marketing focus almost exclusively on that target group, featuring teenage or early-20s celebrities.
How can they afford all this? The answer is surprisingly simple. Their parents endow them with generous allowances. It may be a patently Asian phenomenon observed in Japan and China as well as in Korea, permitting children to rely on their parents’ money until in their late 20s or even early 30s, even in some cases well after their marriage. They are, in a sense, a new leisure class living off of someone else’s money.
But what if, for some reason, the youngsters suddenly realize they can no longer expect hefty allowances and free room and board from their parents? Or what if their number has grown so great that the economy cannot support them any longer? It could be a serious cause for concern in the near future.
Other than tight family ties in Asia, looking into the matter more closely may reveal another factor. One of the hypothetical conclusions is that the biggest culprit in this waste of human resources on a massive scale is the way students are taught in colleges.
Although much has changed for the past 10 years, instructors and academic courses still overly emphasize a liberal arts education. True, philosophy and history classes are important for a person’s internal growth to last a lifetime. But such learning simply doesn’t bring home the bread. Colleges need to go through a fundamental reform in which the curriculum reflects the changes in our society and economy, and in which the students learn requisite skills necessary to survive in today’s fast-changing world.
One way to do so would be to bring in as many experts in respective business fields as possible to teach the kids how the real world really works, instead of ramming a 1,000-page economics book into their faces. Expanding internships in partnership with willing corporations would be a good way to make them street smart. Sending them overseas in Peace Corps-like groups to do volunteer work for underprivileged people in the world would be another good way to help them learn the stark reality of the world while becoming skilled at local languages.
Some day, we may not see as many young unemployed arrayed in the latest fashion trends roaming the streets as we see today, but only if we are successful in getting them to learn marketable skills.
*The writer is managing editor of SERIworld, Samsung Economic Research Institute’s English-language Web site. The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not represent those of Samsung Economic Research Institute.
by Chung Sang-ho