The generational battle for jobs

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The generational battle for jobs

Many know Aesop’s famous fable about the miller, his son and their ass.

They were taking their donkey to a fair to sell him. The miller made the son mount the donkey when people laughed at them for walking. Then some people pointed their fingers at the son for making his old father walk. So the old man got himself up on the donkey.

But he did not go far before being publicly ashamed for making his son walk. So both of them got on the donkey.

Before they reached town, they stopped to rest the donkey and were told they should carry the poor beast. They did exactly that - tied the donkey on a pole and carried him on their shoulders.

There was uproarious laughter when they dropped the donkey in the river while crossing a bridge.

The moral of the story is that if one endeavors too hard to please everyone, he can end up pleasing no one.

We can get an updated version of the tale from our economic situation.

A father and his son are looking for jobs. The son does not want to make his father uncomfortable by finding one before him. The father hopes his son gets one first. The father and son cannot share a job. But their job could go to someone else while they dawdle.

Today, two generations are wrangling over jobs. The conflict is not at a dangerous level, but tensions are heating up.

The conflict surfaced when the ruling and opposition parties agreed to push the legal retirement age to 60 in April. College graduates and job-seekers in their 20s protested their jobs would be at risk. They argued that if the old guard clings longer to their jobs, there would be fewer opportunities for them.

Companies are equally frustrated. If they have to keep senior level employees until 60 regardless of productivity, employment costs will shoot up.

So the politicians came up with an idea to please the twenty-something generation. They drew up a so-called Youth Employment Promotion special law, requiring the public sector to fill more than 3 percent of new recruitment quotas with job-seekers under the age of 29. Legislators patted themselves for their ingenuity.

Despite the good intentions, their law also came under fire. New recruitment at public institutions does not exceed 3 percent of their annual quotas, which means there would be no jobs left to go around to those in their 30’s if they are all reserved for the people in their 20’s. Job-hunters in their 30’s threatened to go to the Constitutional Court to defend their rights. The government and legislators tried to appease them by saying they will extend the scope of “youth” to the age 35.

Now the 40’s cannot be happy, either. The age limit for various government employment and startup promotion programs for young people is 39. People in their 40’s who decided to start their own business find it hard to get support anywhere because they are not considered “young” anymore.

The generational conflict over jobs that started at the further end of the age axis of the 20’s and 50’s is narrowing with the 20’s fighting with the 30’s who are fighting the 40’s. Job disputes have bubbled up in every corner of society.

The fundamental problem is that jobs are simply too scarce. Since there are few new jobs, different generations are fighting for what’s left. Politicians are making it worse by trying to help with support programs targeting specific ages. The job market is a zero-sum game - if someone wins, someone else loses. In order to ease fierce rivalries, the economy must be able to provide more jobs. Instead of trying to figure out what to do with one donkey, we must come up with another so that more can ride.

The Park Geun-hye administration shifted its economic focus to employment from growth. Instead of setting a goal on economic growth, it targets raising the employment rate to 70 percent. Since exporters and manufacturers no longer contribute to hiring, the government must find jobs elsewhere. But just because growth in the past has not generated enough jobs, that doesn’t mean jobs can increase without growth. Instead of giving up on growth, we must try to promote growth that can create sufficient jobs in the process.

The government plan to raise the employment rate to 70 percent, however, does not have specific action plans apart from rhetoric on creating 2.38 million jobs over the next five years. It plans to increase part-time work by cutting back working hours for the current permanent workforce. It aims to extend the employment figures by dividing current work instead of creating new opportunities. Employment increases without solid growth is not healthy. If the economy does not grow, the income pie would have to be sliced into smaller pieces to feed more people. Living standards would fall.

Employment initiatives should give more choices - not ultimatums - to individuals. A father and his son mounting one donkey is an idea, but won’t get anyone very far.

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

By Kim Jong-soo
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