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[Editorial] Undue sufferings

Easing young adults’ hardships requires not sympathetic rhetoric, but policy shift

In his speech marking the country’s Youth Day last week, Prime Minister Kim Boo-kyum expressed deep sympathy for the growing predicament faced by many young South Korean adults. He said he could not raise his head when he saw and heard of “young people’s lives fraught with suffering, despair and pain.”

His description of the hardships weighing on young adults in the nation is backed by gloomy data from the government.

As of May, the number of people in their 20s who have remained jobless for more than three years stood at 278,000. Among them, nearly 100,000 had completely given up looking for a job.

With opportunities to land decent jobs continuing to dwindle, an increasing number of young adults have turned to starting their own business. But inexperienced and unprepared, many of them have been driven into closing their business at an early stage.

According to recent data from the National Tax Service, the number of people under the age of 30 starting their own business jumped 30.2 percent on-year last year, far higher than the corresponding figures for other age groups. The increase came while the number of young adults closing their business rose nearly 40 percent over the past four years.

Soaring housing prices have dashed young people’s hope to buy their own homes. Their future has been further dimmed by mounting national debt, with the burden of repaying it set to be shouldered by them.

Last year, President Moon Jae-in’s administration designated the third Saturday in September of each year as Youth Day to draw more attention to the importance of improving young people’s lives and guaranteeing their rights.

Since Moon took office in 2017, however, his government has pursued a set of policies that have only resulted in making lives harder for young adults.

Its income-led growth drive has pushed many young people out of jobs as employers struggle to cope with a rise in personnel expenditure, including steep minimum wage hikes.

A string of pro-labor measures and other regulations have discouraged companies from increasing investment and creating the kind of jobs that are preferred by young job-seekers.

In a recent survey of 542 people aged 18-29, conducted by the Korea Economic Research Institute, about 63 percent of the respondents forecast job conditions would continue to worsen and nearly 70 percent saw little possibility of landing a job they wanted to get.

A policy to restrict the supply of new homes in the private sector has been coupled with low interest rates that sent housing prices soaring beyond the means of most first-time homebuyers.

Over the past four years, the Moon government has expanded fiscal spending at a faster pace than any of its predecessors to fund bloated welfare benefits and offset the negative effects of its misplaced policies. The country’s national debt, which stood at 660 trillion won ($557 billion) in 2017, is projected to be close to 1,100 trillion won next year, when Moon ends his five-year tenure. The burden to repay the mounting debt will be put on the shoulders of younger generations amid the rapid aging of the country’s population.

Prime Minister Kim’s apologetic remarks might be meaningless if they are not followed by a shift in government policy toward easing the suffering of young adults. Above all, sweeping regulatory and labor reforms are needed to help create more job opportunities for them by reinvigorating corporate activity and making the labor market more flexible.

Citing a rise in the number of employees in August, Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki, who doubles as deputy prime minister for economic affairs, insisted last week that the country’s job market was recovering. But his remarks glossed over the reality, as most of the new jobs were part-time, and full-time jobs in the manufacturing sector shrank by 76,000 from a year earlier in August.

In his address to a UN session on sustainable development goals this week, Moon pledged to cooperate with the international community to achieve those goals, emphasizing that the “future belongs to our future generations.” His speech might have sounded hollow to many jobless young adults back home.

By Korea Herald (koreaherald@heraldcorp.com)
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