|The Hong Man Statue on the campus of Yeungnam|
University. He has a lot on his mind
He looks vaguely disconcerned, carrying the load of a weighty problem instead of a heavy backpack, so commonly associated with today's college students. The Hong Man statue ( ) is the university's popular meeting point, near the center of campus and a stone's throw from the library. But he is more. He may be the university's unofficial mascot--an unintended metaphor for the thousands of Korean students who ponder their future after college.
Korea had famously earned the title of Asian Tiger due to its incredible economic growth since the early 1970's. But that growth is cooling. Korean middle class households shrank from 75.4% in 1990 to 67.5% in 2010. Fifty-five percent of middle class families are having a tough time making ends meet as they are increasingly burdened by debt, according to McKinsey. There has been a drop in the number of high paying jobs with major business conglomerates--so idolized here in Korea. From 2002-2010 there has been an average decline of 2% a year in domestic hiring by major manufacturers. And the household savings rate fell from 20% in 1994, to just 3% in 2012--the lowest among the OECD countries.
Korean college students are facing this challenging environment. There are simply not enough good jobs for all the highly educated people entering the economy. More and more young people are being forced to take jobs they are overqualified for.
Here are snapshots of seven Yeungnam University college students who are pondering their future. These students shared their perspectives in English, speaking in a second language. Six are undergraduate students serving as volunteers at the university's Foreign Language Institute. One is a graduate student working as a staff assistant. I asked each of them the following question: What is the most important thing on your mind these days?
Here are their stories...
|Park Min Jin, 25: "When I write, I'm happy"|
The second most important thing on her mind involves a dilemma about her career. "I am thinking about my dream. I love writing and meeting new people and I love hearing their stories. My parents don't want me to be a writer. They want me to use my English speaking skills at a big Korean company, like Samsung." This challenge, of navigating toward one's personal dream, in a world of strong and conflicting parental preferences, is reflected in the stories of many students who are about to enter Korea's job market.
|Cheong Young Yuk: "Here in Korea most people will judge|
your success by what car you drive, your house, and what
area you live in"
Young Yuk explained his situation, "Everyone forces me to have a job--parents, professors, friends. The only thing they seem to ask about is jobs. 'What company?' 'How is your studying going?'" Said Young Yuk, "I have to think about it. I have to think about it all the time."
|Kim Ji Hyun, 25: "I will follow my own path"|
But an important test awaits Ji Hyun. This too is on her mind these days. "After graduation, I want to be an English teacher. So, I have to take the Teachers' Qualification Exam. Thinking about that future exam makes me nervous. If I don't pass the exam, I will need to find another job--possibly needing to go abroad to teach Korean to foreign learners." Then Ji Hyun added, "My parents are worried about my marriage plans because of my age. There is pressure from them to pass the exam at once and to think about my age and marriage." Like many of her fellow students, parental pressure plays a role in her future plans. But, added Ji Hyun, "I am not worrying about this. To me, it doesn't matter what age I will be when I get married. It could be 25, 30, 35 or 40. I will follow my own path."
|Kim Young Kyung, 26: "My age is not really young for|
getting a job in Korea. Most companies prefer people in
their early 20's"
Young Kyung also finds that she is spending a lot of time thinking about relationships. "Meeting with people when I was younger was easier," she said. "The older I get, the harder it is to get to know others--to get the closeness of high school and middle school friendships." But other kinds of relationships occupy her thoughts as well. "I am also thinking about boyfriends and marriage. As a freshman, I was interested in my friends, not in dating. Now," she says, "most of my friends have boyfriends, so I am thinking a lot about boyfriends and marriage--what kind of person will I meet?"
|Bae Su Hyun, 25: "My parents have supported me for|
25 years, so I need to support myself from now on"
But there is more, much more, to Su Hyun's career preparation plans. To be a stronger candidate he believes that he needs to get more volunteer activities under his belt. "I need to do volunteer work to support someone else's organization, for example, in the area of fundraising," says Su Hyun."Here in Korea big corporations have their own favorite charities. I need to do something so that I have something to tell them when I have a job interview. I always find myself thinking about this; how can I describe this kind of experience on a job interview?"
There was yet another matter on Su Hyun's mind these days--the conflict here on the Korean peninsula. "I am thinking about the Korean conflict. This is true for many of my friends and me. It is a common thing for us." He continues, "When I read the articles in the New York Times and hear other news from abroad, it looks really serious. Japan said if North Korea is going to start a war, then Japan will attack first. I think that would be really terrible. If Japan attacks our peninsula first, it is going to be hell."
|Seo Yeon Jeong (Olivia), 24: "I want to join a cosmetics|
company. I want a job in international marketing"
|Lee Jin Kyung: "Students are under a lot of pressure here."|
Where does the pressure come from? "From society"
When asked about what is currently on her mind, Jin Kyung said, "The most important thing on my mind these days is finding a suitable job. I am searching for marketing and accounting jobs." And she added, "I don't yet know what fits me."
Another matter on her mind is her final year at Yeungnam University. "I am trying to make this last year of my schooling a beautiful year for me. I am trying to meet many friends and create good memories." With Cherry Blossoms the focus of many peoples' attention recently, Jin Kyung was a bit reflective, "For me, the Cherry Blossoms bring sadness because I know this is my last year here."
There is a rumor amongst students here at the university. It goes something like this: Hong Man (he of the statue) is sad. He is depressed. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Hong Man is like many of the students about to graduate from Yeungnam University. They have studied hard and diligently for many years. They have hopes and dreams. There are many things expected of them, by many people.
These Korean students, and perhaps thousands more, are searching for Mr. Good Job. One wonders how many will find him.