[Viewpoint] Korea’s angry, jobless youth

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[Viewpoint] Korea’s angry, jobless youth

Minister of Strategy and Finance Bahk Jae-wan has come under fire for tactlessly describing the job increase witnessed in October as an “employment jackpot.” The comment may have stemmed from his excitement over the positive labor data, but it came across as insensitive considering the number of young people who are still struggling to find jobs.

Furthermore, the October data was less substantial than he implied as the increase was largely due to a rise in irregular jobs for retired people in their 50s and 60s, while positions for those in their 20s and 30s remained stagnant. The number of people with jobs in their 20s remained unchanged from a year ago at 3.63 million in October, while jobs for those in their 50s increased by 300,000 to 5.25 million.

The unemployment rate among people in their 20s stood at 6.7 percent last month, considerably higher than the average jobless rate of 2.9 percent. But the unemployment rate among those in their 50s was 1.8 percent, suggesting that most of those seeking work were, or are, able to find it.

Not that this phenomenon is exactly new. The number of employed 20-somethings has been decreasing annually since 2006, while jobs for middle-aged workers have been rising steadily. During the financial crisis in 1997, everyone had a hard time finding work. But after the global credit crunch erupted three years ago, the employment rate for people in their 50s recovered quickly to pre-crisis levels.

However, the situation for college graduates remains fairly bleak, partly because of the country’s changing demographic, but also because different job opportunities are presented to different age groups in today’s society. New jobs for graduates are scarce, while people facing retirement are using most of their experience and power to keep themselves employed.

These are tough times for young people, who believed that if they studied hard and got into good college, they could easily land a decent job. But their first experience of attempting to climb the job ladder often sees them meet with failure. This helps explain the surging popularity of Seoul University Professor Kim Nan-do’s book “Youth is Pain,” which sold more than 1.3 million copies over the last year.

Park Geun-hye, former Grand National Party chairwoman, a forerunner to represent the conservative camp in next year’s presidential election, named the book as her recent favorite read. Park, like other politicians, cannot prepare for next year’s elections without taking into account the pains of the young. Employed or not, they are eligible voters, and the recent election demonstrates their strong influence on the final count.

And increasingly, young people are growing angry at their situation as they see their career growth stymied by a series of rejections in the job market and lose hope about their future prospects. Their pain and frustration has grown into outbursts of rage against the elite forces in society. They regularly find ways to vent online, usually via social networking services and mobile messaging platforms, which enable them to attack the government, discount the older generation and ridicule mainstream politicians.

Software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo and Park Kyung-chul have provided some comfort and relief with their “Youth Concert” tour to mentor students, but even this overture has failed to suppress the young generation’s anger. As they pour forth their scorn on online platforms, they do not care who falls within their crosshairs, be it the president, entertainers or politicians who “betrayed the nation” by passing the free trade deal with the United States. And when they became the subject of ridicule or satire by Internet radio commentators or entertainers, they rushed to the streets to express their dissatisfaction.

The contrast with their parents’ generation - born in a poor country with next to nothing, slogging away each day to make ends meets and unfamiliar with Internet and texting technology - could hardly be more pronounced.

The older generation did not care how hard they had to work. What mattered most was providing for the family, then serving the boss and the country. The result is in the staggering labor data seen recently among people in their 50s.

The hungry generation is now having sleepless nights as they fret about their offspring, who they supported through college but who cannot find work.

They do not worry about being on the receiving end of the same level of care and support they once offered to their parents. They just hope their children do not go astray as they rail against social inequalities and join in street demonstrations to fight for democracy.

In sum, the hungry generation may not have generated enough work for the angry generation, but they have not stolen the jobs either. Enough with this futile anger.

*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Kim Jong-soo
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