Our youth employment crisis

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Our youth employment crisis

The Mediterranean Sea is dubbed the world’s most beautiful ocean. It is encircled by Africa, Asia and Europe. In the west it is connected to the Atlantic through the Strait of Gibraltar. In the east, it flows through the Suez Canal and reaches the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. It has been a pivotal maritime route for trade and cultural exchanges from ancient times and is known for a warm subtropical climate and picturesque beaches. It is often called the “sea of abundance.”

Japan’s most loved writer Haruki Murakami described the poignant loneliness, loss and burgeoning sexuality of the coming of the age in his international best-seller “Norwegian Wood,” set in Greece and Italy and inspired by the Mediterranean and its coastal scenery. The Mediterranean in its splendor has inspired artists and attracted travelers from around the world. The waters have been a haven of comfort and relief for people from around the world.

Today it has turned into a sea of death. Tens of thousands of people in North Africa and the Middle East are fleeing war, insecurity and violence, starvation and brutality on boats crossing the Mediterranean. They risk their lives to make the journey against perilous tides in hopes of reaching Spain, Greece or Italy and finding a better life. Hundreds never complete the trip.

A immigrant boat capsized on April 17, drowning more than 700 people. Teenagers boarded the boat blindly hoping to find work and a new life. They went down with the boat after vain cries for help. The clear blue serenity after the sea cruelly swallowed the boatful of young and desperate lives added heartbreaking pathos to the tragedy.

The tragic story and scene returned with a pang in the heart upon seeing data on the Korean youth employment rate. The desperation of African youth may not be a story of only the other side of the world. The employment rate of Koreans aged 15 to 29 slipped to 39.7 percent last year. In 2012, Korea’s employment rate of people under 30 was 40.4 percent, worse than the 50.9 percent average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and far lower than Britain (60.2 percent), Germany (57.7 percent), the United States (55.7 percent) and Japan (53.7 percent).

The rate is pitifully low even after taking the account that greater number of Koreans are entering college and men have to finish military service. A third of those fortunate enough to have a job are hired on a contract basis. In March, the number of college graduates failing to find jobs after graduation exceeded 500,000.

The breakdown in the tripartite labor talks among the government, employers and unions is disappointing because it failed to provide hope for young people. The committee cited various reasons for the failure of the talks. But they are all excuses. They should have worked out ways to provide jobs for the young.

But they paid no attention to their troubles. Both employers and unions were entirely preoccupied with defending their interests. The committee did touch on employment for young people and the irregular workforce. But it hardly discussed the agenda because what mattered most was easing hiring regulations. Talk of hiring regulations and work conditions are a luxury to irregular workers, who can be fired and replaced on any day.

It is the contemporary generation’s duty and responsibility to make decent jobs for young people. But the older generation can hardly be depended upon to yield and make room for the young. Permanent work at large companies constitutes just 10.3 percent of the entire labor force. About 96,000, or 95 percent, of newly hired people last year found temporary jobs at small and midsize enterprises. Large companies pay 21,568 won ($20.16) an hour to employees on the permanent payroll. Irregular workers at small and midsize companies earn an average of 8,797 won.

From next year, the retirement age in companies with more than 300 employees will be extended to 60. The scope of base salary also will have to be expanded. Companies will be saddled with extra labor costs. Over the next five to seven years, jobs for young will get even scarcer. Companies are likely to scale down new hiring because to sustain existing employees. The gap between the regular and irregular has widened. Young people now regard finding a job on a contract basis as the norm.

With the protracted economic slowdown casting a pall over the country’s prospects, people enjoying the benefits of the existing labor structure that secures jobs for life in unionized companies have no plan to give them up. The more employees who hold onto their jobs, the fewer the jobs available for the young.

While the union members at large companies enjoy job security, their children will enter lives of debt and hopelessness. What is left in a country that is hardly generating any meaningful growth and jobs?

There is only one way out for the young. They must find work elsewhere. The phenomenon is already a reality. More and more Korean teenagers are finding jobs at restaurants in Hong Kong and Singapore. If the country offers no hope, youth inevitably will shun their country. The tripartite committee must renew talks with the task of creating jobs for young people at the top of its top agenda. We must not be remembered as a country that deserted its children.

JoongAng Ilbo, April 29, Page 32

*The author is the editor of business and industry news at the JoongAng Sunday.

by Kim Jong-yoon

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