S. Korea's young, weary generation

JOB WOES: Born in the era of economic prosperity, today's youth are entering their prime in what seems to be the end of the golden age. While young people may be expected to fight their way through the social jungle to reach their goals in life, weariness is detected instead of vigour.


    Aug 07, 2015

    S. Korea's young, weary generation

    THE older generation in South Korea have many complaints about today's youth.

    Nine out of 10 young people in the subway are glued to their smartphones, texting friends or engrossed in video games. Their attire - girls' short pants almost invisible between their blouses and sandals, and boys' flat-bill caps and long shorts - lacks character. Their faces are like plastic surgery posters.

    Yet, we are genuinely sorry for them. Born in the era of economic prosperity, they are entering their prime in what seems to be the end of the golden age.

    While we expect young people to fight their way through the social jungle to reach their goals in life, general weariness is detected instead of youthful vigour.

    "Conditions were not easy in our days too, yet we were at least not afraid of starting a family," the elderly father grumbles to his children, still unmarried in their late 30s. But marriage is low on their list of problems.

    They suffer from the lack of jobs, which is not their fault. And there are too many absurdities that discourage the young generation as they step into the real world, after years of tough competition among peers through educational stages up to college.

    In the past, college students also had personal difficulties, but they shared one goal - democratic development - that looked attainable if only they endured the clouds of tear gas and police violence in demonstrations. Fortunately, industries were growing to give them optimism.


    The gloom around us includes the forecast that, for the first time in many years, per capita Gross Domestic Product in South Korea is about to record negative growth this year, due to complex causes.

    Politicians has completely forgotten the practice of "bipartisan agreement" in legislation and pointless rows continue over the state intelligence organisation's purchase of hacking programs from a private overseas group. Scams in the purchase of sophisticated arms are exposed almost every week.

    The economy is at a standstill. Big companies, the coveted places of work, are often engaged in family feuds to grab management control.

    The ongoing siblings' fight at Lotte Group, based in South Korea and Japan, is turning uglier day by day. Samsung and Hyundai are now relatively calm, but they had internal disputes a little earlier.

    And unproven competence of the third- and fourth-generation owners of conglomerates adds to the uncertainty of the Korean economy and poses the problem of unearned wealth which continues to grow in this country.

    The situation is getting harsher for the young men and women in South Korea. The unemployment rate of the 15-29 years-old group was officially 10.2 per cent last month, but it may be truer to say that one out of every three young people we meet on Seoul streets is unemployed and one of the two employed is an "irregular" worker.

    It is a little better than Greece but South Korea could be trekking the old European nation's path, with people more concerned with distribution than production.


    I recently read a shocking article written by a freelance writer for a monthly magazine. In her report in this month's edition of Shindonga Monthly, a sister publication of the daily Dong-a Ilbo, Yoo Sul Hee exposed what she called "Hell Joseon (Korea) syndrome" spreading among the young. She titled her story as "This hellish country, give me a bamboo spear!" quoting a catchword used by an online protesters' group.

    The Hell Joseon debaters online divide Korean society into five classes based on their economic status, according to Yoo's observation.

    They are, from top to bottom: gold spoon, silver spoon, bronze, earth and waste spoon. This is derived from the old saying describing a child from super-rich families as "born with a golden spoon in the mouth".

    One blogger summarises Korean society: "The gold spooner goes to an English kindergarten while the waste spooner is beaten up at a children's house. A gold spooner takes training in foreign language during high school while a waste spooner spends time at a PC room... A gold spooner parachutes into a high-paying job whereas a waste spooner keeps making "folder phone" (90 degree) bows to interviewers at one company after another. A gold spooner enjoys retirement by going on overseas trips while a waste spooner spends his (her) last years in a tiny windowless room."

    Emigration is the answer to the frustration and despair of the young generation.

    "We have done what the state and the established society asked us to do from high school to college, but we got nothing. This country is hell to the waste spoon persons," said another Internet user.


    Surveys showed that one out of three young Korean employees were preparing or had once prepared for emigration.

    The "bamboo spear" metaphor seems to be connected to the suicidal trend among the paranoid youth who meet at Internet suicide sites.

    The bamboo spear used to be the arms of peasant rebels in history, but today's despaired youth are not making it themselves. They are asking others to give it to them so that they can thrust it at each other, not at society. The Hell Korea syndrome is appalling but it still sounds like a cry for help.

    There is still the chance of turning their negative emotions into positive energy if only opportunities are offered to them by the established society, such as unions and enterprises.

    There are signs that South Korea faces stagnancy after the dashing decades of "dynamic Korea", when everything was measured by "growth rate". But a new direction is possible with our great asset of an educated workforce. It is a time for a re-adjustment to new realities through accommodation between sectors and generations.

    President Park Geun Hye is doing her part to give them hope, but her appeals to industrialists to create more jobs have yet to produce results. We need true leaders who listen carefully to what the youth have to say, understand their woes and talk them into rising from despair. We all should try to keep them from abandoning their young dreams.