Employment and Korean Education:
Employment and Korean Education:
  • Seo Seok-ho, Kim Chung-hyun
  • 승인 2015.06.24 19:06
  • 댓글 844
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In Search of One’s Lost Self

The Emphasis on education and its validity has been attested throughout the past few decades and has become more than universal in the contemporary society. Such an ardor for education is exceptionally conspicuous in Korean society. According to OECD, Korea’s college where the national university entrance rate measured among the age cohort of 25 to 34, amounts to approximately 70%. The numbers are high, considering that Germany had recorded 40% in the index. Korea’s seemingly high college education rate is actually a drastic fall from 83.8% in 2008.


     Korea is currently suffering from a severe “employment-ache”. According to Statistics Korea (KOSTAT), unemployment rate has reached up to 10.2% in 2014, being the worst year for job seekers in Korean history and creating 1,470,000 people who gave up seeking work - colloquially known as NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Such circumstance seems quite ironic, considering the fact that the average rate of completing higher education in Korea surpasses far beyond that of OECD average. With the evident surplus of job seekers who have high level education that fail to meet the demand of employers, the labor market in Korea is swarmed with roaming high-end manpower. What aggravates this status quo is the recent decision of Korean enterprises to expand the employment of job seekers with high school diploma to bring equivalent opportunities to the less-privileged job seekers. The older generation remains complacent towards such reality, suggesting that it is the fastidious attitude of the Korean youths that is preventing a balanced employment, but Korean youths just can’t let their lifetime’s worth of efforts and time spend to “get a decent job” vanish in vain.


     Despite such a cruel and hopeless circumstance, the young generation of Korean society should refrain from blindly prioritizing the “chances” of being employed, oblivious of its “direction” which ought to be the essence. Put differently, one should start asking himself whether it is really what he wants to do. Regarding this “direction” of employment, it is common nowadays to witness those who have succeeded in getting “a decent job” after all the cruciating pain, just to resign from it merely after a few years or even few months’ time to seek the path of a self-made man. At this point, we should ask explicitly this very question to ourselves and to the society: “What exactly is education for university students in Korea and how big of a correlation does it have with our paths?


     To scrutinize and examine the aforesaid question, we have decided to do a general research within Korean universities and Sogang naturally became the subject of survey, as doing so would reflect the hardships of employment even for prestigious schools in Korea and sort out numerous technical delimitations due to the comparably small number of students.  To derive a profound and response from students, 130 students, representing each department and gender proportionately, have been surveyed on the issue of education and one’s course of life in Korea. After externalizing a common notion of what students think of education, several one-on-one interviews have been carried out to derive a more detailed personal response.


     The results of the online survey were unexpected, as they contrasted the responses of the interview. The survey results showed that regardless of the students’ majors a majority of them answered that the different courses they were taking and the preparations for their employment were of much help to their self-development, which was quite surprising.


     Despite all the flaws for the preparations, the question of why students blindly trust and follow the education system needs to be asked. From the survey results, it can be seen that when students explore different career paths, they aim for probability rather than dor career outlook, because their university lives are influenced with factors such as uncertainty, financial burden, and social pressure.


     Then, could it be concluded that already-employed workers, who are lifted of their financial pressure and anxiety from uncertainty, do not have any other additional problems? According to interviews conducted on a variety of people, it was clear to see that the answer was no.


     Students who receive the so-called cramming education system during their middle and high school years, have difficulty in finding the path that they truly desire for. Only once they become university students do they finally get a chance to develop and find their identity finding a connection to their career paths.  However, those who have graduated and already have their careers are discouraged by the fact that their career life is too different from what they had imagined it to be. They are faced with overwhelming confusion by the constant conflicts found within their environment. The factors of the conflicts could be broken down into three parts.


     First, it is the issue of strongly emphasized hierarchy. It is clear to see that within the Korean society, there is an existence of a distinct hierarchical system. One must inevitably follow instructions of superiors even though the instructions may seem unreasonable at times and the process of following the orders may bring shame to one’s image. However, from one employee’s story, it shows how the hierarchical system is not the only issue but conflicts between colleagues were also a big factor.


     ‘S’ who is in her mid 20s became an employee at a fashion industry company from the beginning of this year. She had lived overseas for over 10 years and she was well accustomed to the Western life and culture. She was in utter shock and surprise when she started working at the company and realized that she no longer owns a personal life because she would come home after midnight and would have to go to sleep almost immediately to get up the next morning for work again. She stated that she was not interested in the fashion industry to begin with and this made it more challenging for her to be motivated to work.


     However, despite the long working hours and no personal life, the most challenging part was maintaining good relationships within the workplace. Seniors or superiors would constantly give instructions to do menial work for them or even worse, assign their own work which they do not want to do. Furthermore, if the work is not completed at a satisfactory level or a problem occurs, all the responsibility and blame would be on the subordinate who did the work. Colleagues could be seen just as spiteful, bad-mouthing those who gave ideas which received compliments from superiors and being named “butt-lickers” or “know-it-alls”.


     These conflicts and problems within the workplace arise from everyone being permanently sensitive, which is a result from lack of sleep and stress-relief. She realizes that money is not everything in life, and that if she had a chance to when she was deciding on which job to take, she would have chosen the latter, which is the job with the smaller salary but permitting her to having more leisure time for herself.


     After graduating from Sogang University in 2011, ‘L’ started working for a major Korean company in overseas marketing. However after 4 years of working for the company he quit his job in February of this year after realizing that the job was not right for him. He was satisfied with the job in the beginning as he had been accepted by a major company, but he could not bear with the job much longer. He decided that he would look for the job that he wanted to do instead of continuing and secretly enrolled in an academy to study for GRE in preparation for applying for masters. He would go to the academy 2~3 days a week after work for a year and was accepted by a university in the USA last November. Since then he has quit his job and will be starting his masters in August of this year. After he finishes his masters, he plans on becoming a consultant either in the US or in Korea.


     It is also important to be able to balance working hours and private time. However Korea is in 2nd place after Mexico for having employees with the longest working hours among OECD countries. Would it be possible to find complete balance between work and life in such a reality? Most companies claim to have 8 hours a day, 5 day working schedule on the surface, but many people work more than 10 hours a day. This is not an exception for ‘K’, who graduated from Sogang University after entering in 2006. K found the job in overseas marketing to be well suited for her. Unfortunately overwork and lack of private time has become a problem. To save time in commuting, K moved from Seoul to Suwon to be closer to the office, but the overload of work does not allow K to be able to spend any time in the new home except for sleeping and taking a wash. The rest of the time is spent in the office. Of course the working after hours is not forced. People easily say “It’s not like they’re not getting paid and they get paid for nighttime labor so I didn’t know what all the fuss was about”. However, after working till 2am 5 days a week and still working during the weekend, the only enjoyment K has recently is buying drinks for junior colleagues. Even though he gets decent salary, there is no time to use any of it. K offered to buy for the second round after buying dinner as well as it was only times like this that K could spend money. It is said that the quality of life is increasing for Koreans, but it seems this is not the case for for office workers in Korea as they no time for self-development or any individual time to have a “life”.


     Rationalization is human nature. It may be the same for many countries, however the Korean society is especially problematic in believing that by hiding one’s weaknesses and displaying only the pure and appealing side, it is a virtuous act of being considerate towards others. Not many people would openly talk about everything they did in college at an interview. No one would willingly say, “I have not received any training.


     Then there is, of course, the issue of one’s aptitude. “You will probably be whining over whichever job you (mandatorily) decide to engage in” is a common piece of advice we hear from the so-called job seniors. Such persistent and depressing notion of equivalent suffering for all employers probably does have certain legitimacy, but are we not even granted with the choice of knowing “what we are going suffer from”? The intensity of competition in employment is absurd, spurring university students to focus blindly on ameliorating his subsidiary factors than the essence to make a clear distinction from others. It is extremely unlikely for a job seeker to walk into the interview room and expose himself entirely in front of the interviewees and it is more than natural. That is the sole purpose of interview: to demonstrate a self that is more embellished and prepared than who you really are. However, while asking himself how he should display a better self, job seekers start forgetting why he is asking himself that question in first place: to get a job he “really wants”. Some might condemn such naive attitude towards the cruel reality, as it is true that a job does define and affect one’s economic, social self-respect, and should never be approached so imprudently. Job seekers are, all in all, hurled in this abyss between “reality” and “ideal”.


     The point in which the real problem starts is after getting a job. The fact that so many people quit their posts, even after finding a job good enough for others to be jealous, proves that.


     Korean society, in such terms, should recognize that there is a fundamental issue of ego-struggle for all individuals, rather than just denouncing those early-retirees as misfits. The problems identified through the interviews above do matter greatly but the most crucial problem occurs when the job is not right for you. Are we really worthy enough to disparage those who diverge from the education and system as losers with no effort? The general public demonstrates a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards such “marginaux”; on one side, critical of such perverse rebels, while on the other end is an idolization. For the divergers to get recognized by the society, there has to be tangible results; be it a publicly noteworthy success in the field or a notable reputation through constant media exposure. This means that whatever you “wanted to do” becomes “what you have to do” in the process of pursuing success in that very field.


     For those who decide to resign after all the sufferings from their posts, this issue is never something that should be regarded so lightly. The ideal and expectations they have long guarded within their egos are trampled and demolished on the very first day their jobs. Career seniors are already aware of such disillusionment but do not explicitly express it as they accept and recognize their responsibility for family. Rather than trying to solve this fundamental problem, the act of merely recognizing the issue can significantly narrow down the disparity between one’s fantasy and reality in employment.


     The sole purpose of this article, despite its critical tone is this: to promote one more job seeker to judge and predict in advance the situations he will experience at their adventing post, and prevent the inconsiderate job-hunting spurred by peer pressure under the skewed creed of following “what everybody else does”.


co-written by Jang Wook, Kim Hae-ni, Roh Ji-Yoon

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