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[AtoZ into Korean mind] Does your job define who you are? Should it?

What Korea's job scene today reveals about Koreans

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : May 6, 2024 - 14:08

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"What do you do for a living?"

Lim Eun-hye came to understand the power of this one simple line after losing the title of college student. Wanting to explore her true desires before settling into a mundane work life, she dabbled in various pursuits, including freelancing, traveling and social clubs.

But she now bitterly admits that she was naive and out of touch with reality.

"People didn't care who I was and what kind of values I was leading my life by,” Lim, 29, said. “What defined me was whether I worked for a large, big-name company or a small one, and whether I was hired as a regular employee, temporary or intern.”

Lim currently works at a Kosdaq-listed firm. After landing the job, considered “decent” by the typical standards of Korean society, she says she felt relieved. The relief was not solely because she was concerned about how others viewed her, but also because of how she felt about herself.

‘Not just any job’

In any culture, a job can be important to live independently as a healthy member of society.

But, in Korea, it holds more significance than that, according to Kim Joong-baeck, a professor in the sociology department at Kyung Hee University.

“For Koreans, if it's not your job, there’s not much else to show who you are to others,” he said. He pointed to how Koreans see themselves through the lens of external markers, such as by university degree, company affiliation or the brand of the apartment building they live in.

And it's not enough to have just any job. Certain occupations hold more prestige and respect than others in Korea.

A 2016 online survey by job portal Saramin showed that 52.1 percent of respondents believed in a “hierarchical distinction” of occupations. Regarding the criteria for determining the superiority or inferiority of certain jobs, social perception ranked highest at 35.7 percent, followed by income at 26.1 percent.

Kang Bo-seung, a professor at Chungbuk National University who teaches ethics education, emphasized that history is the key to understanding prevalent perceptions of certain occupations.

For centuries until the caste system was abolished in the late 19th century, Koreans were categorized into four social classes based on occupation: Scholars were at the highest level, followed in order by farmers, artisans and merchants.

Scholars were considered to have the best jobs, while merchants, who earned money without engaging in productive effort such as farming or crafting products were looked down upon.

“For centuries, excelling in written exams was the most surefire path to rank and honor in Korea,” professor Kang said.

“Korea and China were probably the only countries in the world where power could be attained through excelling in exams,” he added.

He pointed to the “gwageo,” the national civil service exam historically used in Korea to select government officials. The exam, which tested one’s scholarly knowledge -- particularly of great Confucian thinkers -- was a crucial part of the bureaucratic system until it was abolished in the late 19th century.

The civil service exam also had a subcategory for those skilled in martial arts and military tactics, but the role of military personnel, in general, was considered less significant.

In his book "K-Meritocracy,” Park Kwon-il argues that this emphasis on academic knowledge, measurable through written exams, prevails even today.

Those in occupations considered the most prestigious today, such as medical doctors, professors and legal professionals, all had to put in years of rigorous study or preparation for qualification exams in Korea.

Instead of broadly recognizing diverse values such as moral maturity, trustworthiness, tacit knowledge and expertise, Korean society continues to excessively reward "test-taking skills," thereby disadvantaging those who fail the exams, Park contends.

'Ideal job' vs. 'no such thing as lifelong job'

As to the idea of “ideal jobs,” professor Kim discerns a reflection of Korea’s current economic conditions and people’s strategies in adapting to them.

Medical professions, the popularity of which has even been described as a social problem, represent the epitome of social prestige, job stability and high income. The competition to gain admission to medical schools in Korea now begins as early as elementary school.

Among all professions requiring specialized training, expertise or licensing, including lawyers, patent attorneys and accountants, medical doctors earn the highest income, data shows.

Kang Hee-yeon, 45, harbors hope that her 12-year-old son will be able to pursue a career in medicine. He has been excelling in his studies.

“My husband (who works in the financial industry) often expresses envy toward his doctor friends because once they begin to practice, they can work as long as they are physically capable,” she said, adding that there’s no guarantee for his job security as he approaches his 50s.

The uncertain future of work in general in a rapidly changing technological and societal landscape, is a shared concern for many Koreans.

In most cases, however, the approach is not to pursue “ideal jobs,” which are within reach for only a few. The more common strategy, particularly among younger generations, is to give up on the notion of "a job for life," and adopt a more flexible and adaptable approach to employment in general.

For them, what one does for a living at a particular point in time doesn't really define who they are.

Jeon Seong-shin, co-CEO of the civic group Neetpeople dedicated to helping young people transition from school to work, says those entering the job market now cannot expect to be doing the same work, or working at the same company, for the rest of their lives. They need to consider a plan B, or even a second job.

“Even while working at a company, many attempt to have side jobs to create their own something, and to generate extra income,” she said. That additional work could include becoming Instagram influencers, content creators, Webtoon writers or other endeavors that can be done alongside one's main job, she added.

According to a 2021 survey, 51.8 percent of respondents indicated they are preparing for a second job. Of these, 53 percent (multiple responses were allowed) mentioned they are preparing for professional services that require certifications. Notably, among respondents in their 20s, a higher percentage (25 percent) reported they were preparing to become content creators, such as YouTubers, the highest figure among all age groups.

Seeking a side job is not only for those with unstable jobs.

Side job platform Careerday has more than 20,000 workers registered among its members. Of them, more than 4,500 are employees of the nation’s four biggest conglomerates -- Samsung, Hyundai Motor, SK and LG -- it said. These workers gain extra income by providing consulting services to smaller firms and editing job applicants’ resumes, for instance.

Yoo Byung-book, 33, who works at a big-name logistics firm, recently joined a web novel writing class.

“I posted some stories on Naver Web Novel, but the readership was very low, so I wanted to learn about writing in earnest,” he said.

The new pursuit is more of a type of insurance for him than an attempt to fulfill an unachieved dream, he said, after he saw a young colleague being asked to leave when the service he was working on was discontinued.

“There's no reason it shouldn't happen to me,” he said. “If web novels provide me with a stable income, it could alleviate the vague anxiety I feel about my future at the company.”