The Korea Herald


S. Korea's rising problem: unemployed youth giving up on job searching

Growing number of young Koreans don't get married or have children as they fail to find adequate employment

By Lee Jung-youn

Published : Oct. 23, 2023 - 13:50

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Nearly 4 out of 10 young unemployed Koreans have been jobless for the last three years, highlighting an emerging issue in Korean society: a growing number of young people are giving up on job searching.

According to data Statistics Korea released Sunday, 218,000 Koreans aged from 15 to 29 had not been employed for more than three years as of May 2023. Among them, 80,000 were those who spent time mostly at home without seeking employment or training and education for hiring opportunities, the agency said, classifying them as those "not in education, employment or training," or NEET for short.

Statistics Korea also pointed out that the number of economically active young people is constantly decreasing, despite the overall surge of employed people in the whole age range. The data released on Oct. 13 showed that in September this year, 28.698 million people aged 15 or older were employed, up 309,000 from the same period last year, but the number of employed people aged 15 to 29 decreased by 89,000, continuing the decline for 11 consecutive months.

The increasing number of unemployed young people is also restricting their likelihood of finding a spouse and having children.

The number of marriages per 1,000 people in 2022 calculated by Statistics Korea was 3.7 -- the lowest since related statistics began in 1970.

Korea’s total fertility rate in the second quarter of 2023 – the average number of babies a woman expects to give birth to in her lifetime -- was 0.7, down 0.05 from a year ago. This is the lowest number since 2009 when related statistics began to be compiled.

According to a survey of 36,000 young people aged 19 to 34 released by Statistics Korea on Aug. 28, respondents who thought positively about marriage was 36.4 percent, which had decreased by 20.1 percentage points from 56.5 percent a decade ago in 2012.

The biggest reason for not getting married was the lack of marriage funds at 33.7 percent. In particular, economic instability accounted for over 80 percent of men's reasons for not getting married. In the case of women, in addition to economic factors, they also cited social pressure on them to take care of household chores.

The Korea Labor Institute’s report additionally explained that unstable employment status such as irregular and part-time jobs severely lowered young people’s willingness to marry.

Another survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA) showed that 57.5 percent of people aged 19 to 34 are living with their parents. More than half of those respondents, 67.7 percent, said they have no plans to leave their parents’ homes. The biggest reason cited for this was economic instability, accounting for 56.6 percent.

A considerable number of young people who isolated themselves from society have also suffered from concerns over finding employment, the Health Ministry said. According to a report by the KIHASA in May, reclusive youths cited “unemployment” as the most common reason for not going out. According to a Health Ministry’s survey of 5,000 young people aged 19 to 39 in July, 5 percent of all respondents had experienced self-isolation. The ministry estimated that there are about 516,000 young people nationwide who have at least once psychologically and physically isolated themselves, such as cutting off social relations or not leaving home for months.

The ministry conducted a nationwide survey and estimated that there were about 530,000 reclusive young people. In the survey, 18.5 percent of the respondents classified as reclusive youth were taking psychiatric drugs, and 55.7 percent were hoping to return to society.

Central and municipal governments are scrambling to come up with policies to push young people to be socially active.

Deputy Labor Minister Lee Sung-hee held a meeting on Thursday and announced that a total of 9,000 young unemployed people will be selected for the 3 million won ($2,200) support fund next year, which means 1,000 more people will receive the benefit compared to this year. The 9,000 participants who applied for the government's employment support program will receive the one-time cash subsidy, counseling, and job seeking consulting.

The government also held a task force meeting earlier on Sept. 13 and said it would invest heavily in youth job-fostering policies to increase the number of young employed people. It plans to invest 28.1 billion won in 2024 to carry out supportive projects including job counseling.

The Health Ministry has allocated 330.9 billion won for youth welfare policies in 2024, up 43 percent from this year. Psychotherapy and economic support have been strengthened for young people in crisis, including reclusive young people.

Local governments are also trying to encourage young people to get married. Seongnam City in Gyeonggi Province held a blind date event to arrange meetings between unmarried men and women for two months from July as part of measures to resolve low birth rates. The Seoul Metropolitan Government is also considering a similar project. South Jeolla Province declared that its cities are "youth-friendly" on Sept. 16, promising to establish various measures such as housing support and congratulatory money for marriages.

Experts emphasized that providing reliable jobs should be the main foundation for reviving young people’s motivation to join society.

Kim Sung-hee, a professor at the Korea University Graduate School of Labor Studies, pointed out that the main problem is that there are not many stable, well-paying jobs. "Jobs with good prospects and decent salaries – such as full-time positions at large companies with more than 300 employees -- account for only about 10 percent of all jobs in the country," said Kim.

Kim Sang-bong, an economics professor at Hansung University, stressed that an increase in new types of jobs, including temporary workers and freelancers, is a phenomenon that other developed countries such as the United States and Japan have already experienced. A social safety net that allows people to adjust to the new job market is needed, he said. "If we cannot create positions that have traditionally been regarded as good jobs, we should seek to make the labor market more flexible by narrowing the wage gap between regular and non-regular workers and protecting workers in blind spots of the law."