Of any society and nation, the youth are its future and main agents for social change. This kind of change is always necessary in order to have a heightened sense of awareness and presence of inclusivity. However, society is not always accepting of such shifts and the reason lies in the fact that social change often comes at the expense of us having to step out of our comfort zones, causing an intrinsic fear of the unknown.
For a country like South Korea, social change is not always welcomed. More specially, it is especially unwelcomed if it goes against our traditional values. Although our societal paradigms are slowly beginning to shift with the youth being the main actors, Korean society has always played by the rules when it comes down to securing a definition for happiness. Case in point, we were taught by our ancestors and Confucian ideals that the key ingredients to a happy life revolved around our parents’ desires and instructions, because they know best. Getting into a distinguished university, owning a reputable job at a conglomerate company to pay the bills, being a part of the homeowners’ club, and starting a family before the age of 30 are a few at the top of this list. Amongst these, many other vicarious wishes in between are the answers and measurement to success. These unwritten and unyielding guidelines have been passed down generation after generation, and have deep roots in our culture.
However, the Korean youth are breaking the status quo and slowly retreating against this custom. There is a yawning chasm to what society has asked of our parents’ generation and the quality of life that the younger generation strives to achieve. The youth are holding their ground by crushing one of the biggest hopes and dreams of our parents’ generation. We are putting our educational responsibilities on the back burner and owning jobs that aren’t your conventional 9-6 office hours. In a nutshell, the South Korean youth aren’t playing by the outmoded rules anymore and are taking full advantage of the ball that has fallen in their court. These rebels are being called the NEET group and they are rewriting Korea’s rulebook for a happy life.
The term NEET, which stands for Not in Education, Employment, and Training, and previously known as “Status Zero,” was first coined in the U.K in 1999. It refers to a person who is unemployed, not receiving education or vocational training, or disinterested in economic activity and labor engagement. The age cohort of people who fall under this classification is usually between 16 and 24, but this differs based on the status, characteristics, and criteria of NEET in each country.
In South Korea, the stretch of the average age group of NEET ranges from 15 to 29 and the country is estimated to have had 1.56 million in this category in January-October of 2021 alone. Of this particular data, 778,000 were in the process of preparing for employment while the remaining 507,000 were unwilling to dive into employment at all. Such statistics put South Korea as the third-highest ratio of youth in the NEET classification, among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
This high statistical data is alarming for a country that prioritizes education and employment as means of a victorious life and societal progress. South Korea’s rise in NEET over the years is startling news to say the least and a hard pill to swallow for the older generation, who have always stressed on the connection amongst a prestigious university background, a successful career, with a stable life.
In South Korea and against the backdrop of NEET, the main cause in the rising number of the NEET youth is the unbounded rate of unemployment that seems to surge day in and day out. Undoubtedly, this is a problem that South Korea has been struggling with for decades and has remained unresolved. Despite presidents that have pledged to prioritize job creation and companies that have increased job openings year after year, the weight of the problem has not been lifted. Unfortunately, the de facto jobless rate for Koreans aged 15-29 has risen from 22.9% in 2017 to 27.2% in 2021.
While many look to the government and its policies to resolve this issue, the administrations that have come and gone have failed to offer any progress. The Moon administration presented a road map to create at least 550,000 jobs through a KRW 10 trillion plan, but this scheme was denounced, with many claiming that it would only create non-regular jobs and abuse the taxpayer’s money.
An uncertain future and an unstable job market have caused many South Korean youth to settle for a steady job and future – the anchored life of a civil servant. South Korea has a nine-grade system for career civil servants. Grade 1 is the highest level and once one passes the examination process, civil servants are usually guaranteed tenure, receive an increase in their salary accordingly, and are promised a pension. Subsequently, the premise that a civil servant is regarded as a life-long job and offers a comparatively friendly working-environment has increased the competition in the civil service exams despite the low wages given to employees in this sector.
“I worked hard to get my current job, but I don’t think it really fits me. There has been a lot of pressure on me to come up with meaningful achievements and productive outcomes,” stated a 33-year-old office worker who currently works at a marketing company in Seoul and is preparing to take the Grade 7 civil service exam. “It seems like the work that public officials do is less stressful, and above all things, they are guaranteed tenure.”
As observed in the above statistics, it cannot be denied that the large number of people preparing for the civil servant exam adds to the growing number of NEETs in Korea. In a society where one is uncertain if they are going to get a call back from a job interview or if they will be able to adapt to the competitive corporate culture, opting for a much more stable route with a guaranteed tenure and increase in salary on a fixed schedule seems like the safer option. Probably for this reason, the number of civil servants rose by 99,465 three years after the Moon administration took office.
The rise in NEET also correlates to the growing number of youth who are choosing to withdraw themselves from the fixed paradigm of our society. We have observed that the MZ Generation are doing things differently or speaking up against the “kknodaes” (꼰대). 9-6 is no longer the regular time frame for reporting to work, work does not always have to be done within the four walls of an office, corporate culture can exist without a hierarchical structure, and a university degree does not imply a six-figure salary. Many people have also decided that marriage is a choice and is not obligatory; others have chosen to get married, but opted out to having kids- otherwise known as DINK (Double Income, No Kids). Subsequently, society is referring to us as the “angry generation” or the “lost generation,” due to our negligence to the older generation’s central ideas. However, the youth are firmly sending a message that we should no longer parlay an educational degree and a reputable job into life success.
Many of the changes that are now perceived to be normal are those that have tagged along with the recent adjustments caused by COVID-19. Although the pandemic caused fatal consequences to our society and environment, it also prompted us to think divergently, act unconventionally, and question the normalcy that we grew too comfortable in. We’ve observed a massive surge of new occupations, ones that can be performed anywhere for as long as we have our phones and Internet. The MZ generation have demonstrated that YouTubers and Tiktokers are full time jobs and are not child’s play, and that capital acquired through cryptocurrency and NFTs is not money for old rope. Subsequently, it was announced that nearly three times as many children want to be YouTubers than astronauts when they grow up.
Ryo Chu-hyeop, a 36-year old YouTuber and South Korea’s first professor of “influencer affairs,” stated, “I think it is natural that more and more students dream of becoming content creators as the job enables them satisfy their desire of building relationships and achieve economic success at the same time.”
Dolce Far Niente
Ju-hyung Kim, an 18 year old, dropped out of high school in order to pursue other interests, such as playing the guitar. “If I’m not going to be at the top of the class, I don’t need to bother studying for school classes,” Kim affirmed. “I’m satisfied because I don’t have to study subjects that don’t relate to the field I want to study in college.”
In South Korea, there are many students like Kim who have dropped out of high school in order to pursue a more specific career path or also because they don’t see the point in learning subjects that are outside of their interests. “I thought planning out on my own what I want to study might be more helpful for me than spending time at school,” said Daeun Lee, an 18 years old studying to get a baking certificate.
An interview by Korea Expose offered a perspective into the lives of the South Korean youth who have gone a different route by not going to university. One student was happily busking on the streets and Sun-woo Ahn, another dropout, stated, “(This is) a sign of a better beginning, the fact that you’re asking yourself questions,”
According to the Korean Educational Development Institute, 14,140 high school students left school during 2020. This data has increased by 22.7% since 2013, 36.3% since 2014, and 50.3% from 2018. The long term effect of this would result in the reduction in universities. A report by Seoul National University and the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs has provided research that states that South Korea could lose up to half its universities in the next 25 years if this demographic decline continues.
When there is a surge of change that comes as a result of generational shifts, it gives us a chance to look back and reflect. The NEET cohort are throwing questions at us, some of which are ones that we may want to avoid while others are necessary at this point in time. What do we seek to gain from our jobs? Are we just looking for jobs that will pay our bills or do we want to gain a sense of achievement and happiness as a result of them? We are slowly beginning to realize that the statistics for unemployment, the rise in NEET, and the unprecedented revolution to implement change do not imply negative connotations to our society’s progress, but rather signal a struggle to break free of stereotypes and birth change.
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