Korea’s Students Depressed, Out of Work

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POTOMAC, Maryland — South Korea’s National Statistical Office recently released a report entitled “2014 Statistics on Youths.”

It revealed that 11.2 percent of youths between the ages of 9 and 24 have contemplated suicide at least once in the past year.

39.2 percent of teens most often cite school stress as the cause of suicidal thoughts. Meanwhile, 27.6 percent of older Koreans — between the ages of 20 and 24 — struggle with depression due to financial hardships.

This is representative of Korea’s growing problem of over-education. Korean high-schoolers are pressured to excel academically so that they can attend elite universities and attain financial security after graduating.

But, as only degree-bearing Korean youths understand, jobs are hard to come by. In fact, “Beyond Korean style: Shaping a new growth formula,” a 2013 report published by the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) discovered that unemployment rates were actually higher for college graduates than for those who attended vocational high schools.

An Improbable Development

South Korea’s exemplary growth from an undeveloped country to one that is known for its lauded LCDs and mobile phones began in 1960.

In the past two decades alone, Korea’s GDP has tripled. It embraced heavy industry and the export of specialized manufactured goods. The country remains the first to have transformed from an OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) aid recipient to a member of the organization’s donor committee.

However, such quick overall growth neglected the development of other sectors. According to the MGI report, half of all middle-income households pay more in bills than they earn. Korea’s fertility rates among the developed world are the fourth lowest. Despite this, the country’s suicide rate remains the highest of all developed nations.

In 2013, the average OECD member spent 22.1 percent of GDP on welfare. Korea could only manage 9.6 percent.

While global employment has ballooned for Korean firms, domestic employment has been declining at a steady annual rate of 2 percent for the past 15 years. All the while, Korea’s obsession with higher education continues, despite the uncertainty of a college degrees’ practical value.

The MGI found that the average middle class family spends close to $100,000 per child for education alone. In a country where 70 percent of the population pursues tertiary education, competition for the few prestigious jobs is cutthroat. Only the most qualified and degree-burdened applicants are accepted.

The many Koreans who pursue these jobs must endure years of post-secondary education and standardized test training. Only 10 percent of these positions are actually available. These Koreans are known as “chuiupjunbiseng,” literally, “students preparing for work.”

For the “chuiupjunbiseng,” the Test of English for International Communication (TOEIC) is the only light at the end of a dark tunnel. If achieved, the certification provides salvation in the form of a well-paying job.

The test has become the competitive Korean firm’s trusted recruiting tool, but its difficulty delays many degree-bearing Koreans from entering the workforce.

According to a 2012 survey conducted by the Korea Employment Information Service, the average age of new office workers is 33.2 for men and 28.6 for women.

With high school standards and competitive career fields, Korea’s students are burdened with an unknown future.

Shehrose Mian

Sources: Finfacts, Reuters, WSJ, McKinsey, Koreabizwire
Photo: The World

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