The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Youth job blues

Number of young ‘discouraged workers’ rebounds; time to spur labor reform again

By Korea Herald

Published : June 27, 2024 - 05:31

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The number of young working-age people who are unemployed and yet refuse to look for jobs has begun to increase again after falling for nine months.

A Statistics Korea survey released Sunday found that 398,000 people aged 15 to 29 “just rested” at home last month doing nothing to make money or search for jobs. The figure was up 13,000 from a year earlier.

Most unemployed people look for jobs, but these people do not. They give up seeking jobs and just take a rest though they have no health problems.

The number of these so-called “discouraged workers” soared during the pandemic then began to fall in September last year before rising again in May, ending a nine-month slide.

The population in this age group who said they were “just resting” last month was the second-largest for the month of May since 2020, when it was 462,000. Related statistics began being compiled in 2003.

The share of “resting” people in the entire youth population jumped from 4.6 percent to 4.9 percent in a year.

It is concerning that the number of those aged 15-29 who quit looking for jobs has bounced back.

If the number of “resting” young people outside the labor force increases, Korean society cannot but lose vitality. It could cause social unrest. Taking this issue seriously, the government unveiled an array of measures last November to induce young discouraged workers into the economically active pool. But there are limitations on policies focusing on employment assistance when the nation fails sufficiently to generate decent jobs that young people want.

Out of young wage workers, 2.35 million had quality jobs last month. The figure is down 195,000 from a year earlier. The decrease was the largest in a decade and also steep compared with other age groups. The number of quality jobs increased by more than 200,000 in the group of those aged 60 and older, and by about 90,000 and 60,000 among those in their 30s and 50s, respectively.

If young people are late in entering the labor force, their chance of landing quality employment will fall and their economic burden on the society will grow. If many young people are left unemployed for long, they will likely be excluded from the labor force for good. In a situation where the working-age population is shrinking due to the low birth rate and aging, they could become a drag on the national economy. According to the Korea Youth Foundation, economic losses and welfare expenditures due to the unemployment and social isolation of young discouraged workers are estimated to reach 7.5 trillion won ($5.3 billion) annually.

The labor market must change in the direction of activating youth employment. The Yoon government's push for labor reform has been losing momentum. The 52-hour workweek policy has been unchanged for more than a year and three months. The job of redressing the gap between regular and irregular workers has not gotten off the ground yet.

One of the obstacles to the entry of young people into the labor market is job mismatch or a disconnect between the employee’s expectations and actual job requirements. It is a chronic problem. Many people are looking for jobs, but some sectors of the job market always complain of a labor shortage. This contradiction largely stems from the polarization between large and small companies over compensation and employee benefits. This polarization is ever-deepening. If this situation is left unadressed, youth unemployment will be hopeless.

The tendency of large companies to recruit individuals with job experience is one of the major hurdles that makes young people hesitant to enter the labor market. The government must figure out measures to improve career mobility.

A fundamental solution lies in creating quality jobs by fostering active corporate investment. It is essential to spur labor reform again. An environment that makes it more economical to build factories at home rather than abroad could give hope to young people. It goes without saying that politicians must do their duty.