I have a little bit of free time this morning, so I just wanted to fire of a slightly off topic post about a conversation I had with Busan a couple of weeks ago, which I was reminded of by this post on The Grand Narrative about young Koreans' struggle in finding acceptable jobs. It's a subject I, being a foreigner, don't know a whole lot about. So I mostly just listened, throwing in Devil's Advocate type arguments here and there, to try to get a feel for what might be going on.
Busan himself has just changed companies, and has come to Seoul in the first place because there was little work in his field back in his hometown. His friends, all around his age, are currently going through the same struggles -- looking for jobs, interviewing, finding unsatisfactory jobs, wanting more.
In Busan's opinion, it comes down to an unwillingness to work their way up. He said (paraphrased), "The job I accepted at first was nowhere near my ideal job. But it was a job at a company and I had to support myself. There's nothing wrong with that. When I have the means to support myself, and I start to gain skills, I can start to look around to find better and better positions and slowly move up. That's normal. But young people these days don't want to take a position that's lower than their ideal to begin with. They want to aim too high above their station to start. I was just out there -- there are plenty of jobs. They're just not the top jobs. Young people don't want to accept less than they think they deserve, not even to start. So they complain."
Busan's from a poor family, and echoing a lot of things I also said at the time when I was graduating university and hearing everyone around me complain and turn their noses up at perfectly good jobs which didn't provide them the status or the bragging rights they had imagined having. Some unemployed people who were relying on their parents' support would even cringe when I revealed, a few months after graduation, that I was still working at the university from which we had graduated.
The expenses of living in a major city are not a joke, and nobody wants to be hand-to-mouth forever. But Busan has kind of shifted my thinking about this issue in Korea a little. I started out in the conversation talking about competition and the grueling work schedules and rising cost of living and not being able to build a decent life. All of which I still think holds some truth everywhere, and in Seoul in particular -- right now, Busan's working until past 10 pm every night because he decided to take a step up in his career, which is something I'm just having to sit back and watch, a little agape, somehow knowing that it may never get better. But part of me is also now seeing some of what the older generation is bristling at, which is a certain arrogance on the part of the youth in this country, and their expectations for what they should have in life, in contrast to what their parents and their parents' parents may have had (and had to do to get it).
Almost every Korean I've spoken to on the subject, including Busan, agrees that it's time for Korea to stop focusing so much on economic progress and working on quality of life. Shorter working hours, essentially, is what that tends to mean. But for Busan, that means a move away from the focus on status. When young Koreans start turning their noses up at jobs with bigger salaries, weightier company names and longer working hours, and turning instead to more average jobs that allow them more free time to focus on their own lives and their families, then that's when the ship will start to turn around. In his mind (and mine as well), realistically, you can't have both.
That doesn't mean he's not still having a personal struggle about which direction to go in. It's easy enough to talk about it, but accepting a financially less stable position in order to make it happen, and not being able to see what the future holds, is not an easy choice to make. Most nights, these days, as he calls me while he's slipping off his shoes and finally stepping back into his small officetel at night, while I'm already curled up in bed, fed and washed, it usually just comes out as, "Korea is not poor anymore. Why do we have to work like we are?"
As for my part, I'm happy enough to sit down on the outside and watch how this all will play out. There are so many complicating factors -- gender and age in the workplace, the family structure and how women's roles (and expected roles) are going to play a part. I'm not building a family in Korea, right now, but I'm starting to have to be more and more serious in my thoughts about how it might feel to have a husband who doesn't get home until 11 pm every night, or to not have enough money to educate my children to the level that will send them off into the world on equal footing with their peers. It's not a pleasant issue to ponder. I have the ability to opt out of that, if I choose. Busan's not so lucky. There's a lot of weight on his shoulders right now. And that, I think, is what young Koreans are feeling more than anything else.