Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 October 2019

South Korea's burned out millennials choose YouTube over Samsung

An increasing number of younger workers are turning away from trying for employment at the traditional "chaebols' such as the electronics giant

Yoon Chang-hyun gave up his Samsung job to set up as a YouTube content provide. Reuters
Yoon Chang-hyun gave up his Samsung job to set up as a YouTube content provide. Reuters

Yoon Chang-hyun's parents told him to get his sanity checked when he quit his secure job as a researcher at Samsung in 2015 to start his own YouTube channel.

The 65 million won (Dh210,000) a year salary - triple South Korea's average entry level wage - plus top-notch health care and other benefits offered by the world's biggest smartphone and memory chip maker - was the envy of many college graduates.

But burned out and disillusioned by repeated night shifts, narrowing opportunities for promotion and rocketing property prices that have pushed home ownership out of reach, the then 32-year old Mr Yoon gave it all up in favour of an uncertain career as an internet content provider.

Mr Yoon is among a growing wave of South Korean millennials ditching stable white-collar jobs, even as unemployment spikes and millions of others still fight to get into the powerful, family-controlled conglomerates known as chaebol.

Some young Koreans are also moving out of the city for farming or taking blue collar jobs abroad, shunning their society's traditional measures of success - well-paid office work, raising a family and buying an apartment.

"I got asked a lot if I had gone crazy," Mr Yoon said. "But I'd quit again if I go back. My bosses didn't look happy. They were overworked, lonely ..."

Mr Yoon now runs a YouTube channel about pursuing dream jobs and is supporting himself from his savings.

Yoon Chang-hyun works on his Youtube clip in Seongnam, South Korea. Reuters
Yoon Chang-hyun works on his Youtube clip in Seongnam, South Korea. Reuters

Samsung declined to comment for this article.

Chaebols such as Samsung and Hyundai powered South Korea's dramatic rise from the ashes of the 1950-53 war into Asia's fourth-largest economy in less than a generation. Well-paid, secure jobs provided a gateway to the middle-class for many baby boomers.

But with economic growth stagnating and competition from lower cost producers weighing on wages, even milliennials who graduated from top universities and secured chaebol jobs say they are less inclined to try to fulfil society's expectations.

As the minimum wage for 2019 is set at 8,350 won, an increase of 10.9 per cent compared to 2018, many companies are now focusing on automation and smart factories as possible solutions to the increased labour costs and the consequent decline in corporate profit ratios, according to international HR specialists Robert Walters' Salary Survey 2019. Over the past year and a half, there has been a noticeable rise in hiring in smart factory-related sectors such as machine vision, factory automation systems, motion control & robot sensors and industrial software, it says.

"There has been a marked increase in hiring in smart factory-related sectors such as machine vision, factory automation systems and industrial software, leading to a rise in demand for professionals with expertise in AI and deep learning," Duncan Harrison, South Korea country manager at Robert Walters, says in the report.

Going solo in the digital sphere may have an added bonus for those such as Mr Yoon should they wish to return to the corporate world. Those looking to hire in the IT sector are more concerned with hands-on experience than paper qualifications and what college a candidate attended.

"Opportunities are being given to developers with diverse backgrounds and, rather than simply looking at the name of the school the person graduated from, companies are starting to consider the projects they have participated in as a more important hiring crieria," says Mr Harrison.

"Gaming, block chain and big data areas in the labour market look very promising, so developers with advanced proficiency in game engines such as Unity and programming skills in languages such as Java, C++ and Python can expect salary increases of 10 per cent when changing jobs."

Similar issues among younger workers are being seen globally. However, South Korea's strict hierarchical corporate culture and oversupply of college graduates with homogeneous skills make the problem worse for those without specialised, in demand skills and experience, says Ban Ga-woon, a labour market researcher at state-run Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training.

South Koreans had the shortest job tenure among member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as of 2012, just 6.6 years compared to the average of 9.4 years and 11.5 years in neighbouring Japan.

The same survey also showed barely 55 per cent of South Koreans were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest rate in the OECD.

This January, "quitting jobs" appeared in the nation's top 10 New Year resolutions list on major social media sites.

Some workers are even going back to school to learn how to do just that.

A small three-classroom campus in southern Seoul, named "School of Quitting Jobs", has attracted over 7,000 attendees since opening in 2016, founder Jang Su-han told Reuters.

The 34-year-old Mr Jang, who himself quit Samsung in 2015 to launch the school, said it now offers about 50 courses, including classes on how-to-YouTube, manage an identity crisis, and how to brainstorm a Plan B.

The school's rules are displayed at its entrance: "Don't tell your bosses, say nothing even if you run into a colleague, and never get caught until your graduation."

"There is strong demand for identity-related courses, as so many of us were too busy with cram schools to seriously think about what we want to do when were teenagers," he said.

To be sure, the lure of a prestigious chaebol job remains strong, especially with the country mired in its worst job slump since 2009 and youth joblessness near a record high.

Samsung is still the most desired workplace for graduates as of 2019, a survey of 1,040 job seekers by Saramin, a job portal, showed in February.

However, many entering the workforce are much less willing to accept the long hours or mandatory drinking sessions synonymous with the country's hierarchical, cutthroat corporate life, says Duncan Harrison, country head of London-based recruitment agency Robert Walters.

"The mindset of people entering the workforce is very different from past generations," Mr Harrison said.

Among elementary school students, YouTube creator is now the fifth-ranked dream job, behind being a sports star, school teacher, doctor or a chef, a 2018 government poll showed.

Some are choosing a simpler life in the country.

Between 2013 and 2017, South Korea saw a 24 per cent increase in the number of households who ditched city life for farming - more than 12,000 in total.

And in the face of dwindling opportunities at home, nearly 5,800 people also went abroad for jobs last year using government-subsidised programmes, more than tripling from 2013, according to government data.

Others left without support or new jobs lined up.

Plant engineer Cho Seung-duk bought one-way tickets to Australia in December with his wife and two kids.

"I don't think my son could get jobs like mine in South Korea," said 37 year-old Mr Cho, who moved from Hyundai Engineering and Construction to another top construction firm in 2015 before he emigrated.

"I will probably clean offices in Brisbane, but that's ok."

Updated: April 7, 2019 02:15 PM

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