It’s all about population

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It’s all about population

The worst news headline in Korea this year could be: “College Graduates: 96.7 percent employed in Japan vs. 56 percent employed in Korea.” Readers self-depreciatingly call Korea “Hell Joseon” and the “Hell Peninsula.”

But the statistic is misleading. It is based on the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare’s survey of a sample of 6,250 college graduates. In Japan, it is customary for college seniors to finalize employment before graduation. Therefore, the number does not reflect the college graduates who are unemployed or seeking jobs. Japanese Ministry of Education’s complete survey is rather comparable to Korean Ministry of Education’s statistics. It should have been 70.3 percent in Japan vs. 56 percent in Korea.

Abenomics has certainly vitalized employment in Japan. To Korea, 70.3 percent is an enviable number. However, there are sad stories behind it. Let’s look at the population pyramid. In Japan today, 9 million people between age 60 and 64 are retiring, while only 6 million between age 22 and 26 are seeking jobs. Even with zero percent growth for the next 20 years, Japan’s college graduate employment rate would still go up. So we should not envy the 70.3 percent, a tragic number as a result of low birth rate and rapid aging of the society.

Korea’s youth unemployment is like a compound fracture. Eighty percent of children born in the 1990s went to college and university, and every year, 350,000 people graduate from college. This is due to distorted education policy. Japan, whose population is 2.4 times that of Korea’s, and whose economy is three times larger, produces 560,000 four-year college graduates annually. Also, the number of jobs at our major corporations with more than 300 employees hasn’t been growing for five years. In addition, the retirement age was extended to 60, so the companies’ ability to absorb college graduates is running out. In short, there is no solution. Until the baby boomers’ retirement is completed in five years, youth unemployment is not likely to improve.

The government recently announced its third plan to address our low-birth rate and aging society, which even includes trivial measures such as “group blind dates.” People responded vehemently, saying things like: “Ending the inheritance of poverty is not having children,” or “If I don’t have children, the country will suffer 20 years later - but if I do, I will suffer now.” The agony of the young generation reflects the reality in Korea.

Lately, the battle over the history textbook is escalating. But more sensitive readers would feel chill down their spine when they read the news about Seoul Milk paying 40 percent of its salaries in dairy products. As the number of children decreased, milk consumption has fallen by 5 percent. Baby product maker Babyra went bankrupt, and Agabang has been sold to a Chinese company. Happy Land is the only one remaining.

The nightmare of the low birth rate began long ago. The number of newborn babies climaxed in 1970 at 1 million, then dwindled to 700,000 in the ’80s, 650,000 in the ’70s, 450,000 in the ’00s and 430,000 last year. In Japan, the number of deceased surpassed the number of new born babies in 2007. Korea will meet the same fate in 2028. Japan’s Vice Prime Minister Taro Aso said, “Let old people hurry up and die,” and such a curse may be uttered in Korea too.

In 1980, the per-capita GDP of Korea was $1,598, and France’s was $12,700. Korea’s dream was to become a creditor nation and have a trade surplus. Korea accomplished the miracle. This year, Korea’s economy is 11th in the world and per-capita GDP is $28,338, soon to catch up with France ($38,458). This year’s trade surplus will be $110 billion, at 3rd or 4th place in the world. Korea is soon to have net surplus status. Nevertheless, Korea is full of tragedies and misfortunes, and people are struggling to make ends meet. Young people are reluctant to get married and have kids.

Offering cash will not solve the problem. But the country cannot give houses to families with children. Singles taxes cannot be imposed. How about giving priorities to couples with more than two children when hiring public servants, public corporation employees and teachers? How about giving extra points to families with multiple children in medical and law school admissions? If we don’t act now, Korea’s history may disappear altogether. We need drastic ideas to reform the structure of the country. When the number of students is decreasing, there’s no sense in focusing on what to include in the history textbook.

JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 20, Page 34

*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Lee Chul-ho

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