Requiem for a dream
The young in Korea dream about having jobs. Dreams are an idealistic longing that are not necessarily realistic. But what young Koreans dream about is a practical means of making a living. Either the definition of dream has changed over the years or life for young Koreans has become so horribly brutal that all they aspire to - their ultimate goal - is to put their able bodies and minds to useful work and get paid for it.
People call household corporate names like Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor or large banks as places that offer a “dream job.” But the fact is that even when one gets into one of these companies, it does not necessarily mean he or she will be given an opportunity to explore and test their true potential and full capabilities. Except for a select few, most serve as replaceable accessory parts to the organization. They are just employees in a workplace like any other. That is the new “dream job.”
So the older generation advises them to look beyond the big corporate names. They implore them to consider wider choices in the small and midsize sector. But they don’t know what they are recommending. Young people want to get into so-called dream workplaces for simple and real reasons.
Small and midsize companies offer average pay of less than 30 million won ($26,000) a year. The bigger companies offer new recruits a paycheck triple that sum. It was not that way for the older generation. The salary gap between large and smaller companies was less than 10 percent until the mid-1990s and about 20 percent in the 1990s before the financial crisis arrived in 1997. Now, small and midsize companies pay employees just half of what large companies offer. From the 1980s to early 1990s, four out of 10 Koreans worked in large companies. Today, the number is less than two. The majority - eight out of 10 - work in companies earning half of what their counterparts in large companies get.
The reality of our workplaces is more serious than most imagine. Five out of 10 start careers with a permanent job position. Two of them are lucky to get into a large company. Three out of 10 start off in contract-basis jobs. Two are categorized as “job-seekers” or “unemployed.” Those who are lucky enough to shift jobs from a small company to a bigger one account for one out of 10. Those who get on a permanent payroll after two years on a contract are also two out of 10. This is why the young devote most of their college years trying to polish their resumes and qualifications to get into a so-called dream workplace.
Korean students struggle all their adolescent years to get into good universities that demand the world’s second-highest tuition fees for the sole reason of getting a decent job. Their goal is not knowledge but high GPAs. University campuses bristle with tension and competition to get better grades instead of the usual air of youthful passion and curiosity. Students spend more time on English classes that cost more than their university tuitions. Volunteer and club activities are done to look good on their resumes. Many try to keep positive and work hard, but the fact that only one out of 100 gets a dream job and one out of two a salaried position does not change. The rest must be satisfied with non-salaried or irregular positions.
Jang Geu-rae, a 20-something sales rookie, does everything to get his contract extended but fails to overcome cruel reality in the popular drama “Misaeng” (Incomplete Life), which portrayed the everyday ordeals facing contract workers. His intern peer, Jang Baek-yi, is headed for a secure career not because he worked harder or was more capable, but because he was lucky and has a degree from an elite school. Jang later works with his old boss, whose life is also imperfect. The old formula for success - growth from small to bigger company and later a chaebol - has long stopped working in Korea.
The days are long gone when people were committed to their work with the conviction that the company’s well-being and growth coincided with one’s own regardless of how much they earned. With chaebol dominating almost all economic spheres, the only way for small and midsize enterprises to succeed is to serve chaebol.
Most of the working population in Korea works at small and midsize companies on a non-permanent basis. Without fixing the wage differences between small and large companies and irregular and regular workforces and the unfair arrangement between large manufacturers and smaller suppliers, most people in this country are forced to lead incomplete and unstable lives. The world does not change by itself. We must make it happen. Sadly, we get little help from political or business leaders. The young are getting wary. Some are giving up. An individual’s hopelessness is his or her own, but that of one generation translates into a crisis for a country. Will this nation ever be complete again?
Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 26, Page 35
The author is a professor at the Korea University Business School.
by Jang Ha-sung