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Sampo, Opo, Chilpo – More and More Young South Koreans are Leaving the Country

By Mascha Peters

20 December 2017

Young people in South Korea are facing an increasingly difficult social and economic environment. Despite a vast investment in higher education, there is much pessimism about their future prospects, especially among young women.

If you were born between 1980 and the mid-1990s in say Germany, you would be part of “Generation Maybe”. Born into an age of peace and rapid globalization the cliché wants it that you are part of an entitled generation of world citizens – highly educated, well connected, multilingual, yet so chronically overwhelmed by the number of prospects you cannot bring yourself to committing to more than a “maybe”. Thirty-somethings in South Korea would probably give up a lot to have that kind of problem. In fact that is exactly what they are doing – the Sampo, Opo or Chilpo generation, as they are called in Korea, is referring to the three, five or seven things Koreans in their 30s give up in order to have a better life: dating, marriage and children (three – sam), social life and house ownership (five – o), dreams and hopes (seven – chil).

Mostly referred to as the Sampo Generation these young people actually share some important characteristics with their German counterparts. They are better educated, speak more languages and invested more time and money in their training than any generation before them. Yet despite these efforts Sampos are facing difficult times, causing an increasing number of young Koreans to leave their country for good.

Global Population Boom and Youth Unemployment

In 2011 the global population reached the 7 billion mark; this year it is about 7.6 billion, a fourth of which is aged 10 to 24[1]. After years of focusing on the impact of aging societies, policy makers worldwide have come to realize that there is another demographic trend which is bound to challenge the development, peace and security of today’s societies. The global youth unemployment crisis found its way into the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and is a key priority of the Global Youth Initiative launched by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2016.

Yet different solutions will be needed for different parts of the world. Huge imbalances persist even within the EU or G20. Youth unemployment in Japan and Germany stand at 5.3 and 6.1 percent respectively, whereas Italy and Spain are still struggling with rates hovering at 37.4 and 40.9 percent[2]. In advanced economies the aftermath of the financial crisis and ongoing globalization are not the only reasons for this development, there is also a decisive mismatch between demand and supply in their labour markets[3]. The situation presents itself differently in the developing world, where young people cannot afford to be unemployed but are affected by what is called “working poverty”, meaning that they work in jobs that don’t pay enough to escape poverty.

And then there are the countries in between. South Korea is one of them, though an uncharacteristic one. Usually there is a strong nexus between high levels of growth and optimism towards the future – but not in South Korea. Half a century ago the Korean War left the country in ruins, or what was left of it after the end of WWII and Japanese occupation. In the course of several consecutive military dictatorships the much-quoted miracle of the Han river emerged, sporting double-digit growth rates at times, bringing prosperity if not freedom to the Korean people. Since the downfall of the authoritarian regime in 1987, South Korea has worked hard to become a respected member of the developed world. It is a middle power, G20 and OECD member, engaged in various other multilateral institutions and still an economic powerhouse, the first Asian country with which the EU signed an FTA in 2011.

Pessimistic Outlook

Despite this backdrop, South Korea was the only country in the Pew Research Center’s spring 2014surveywhere young people were less likely than those aged 50 and older to say children in South Korea today will be better off financially than their parents[4].In every other of the 44 countries polled people between 18 to 33 were more optimistic about their future, stating that a good education and hard work were the keys to getting ahead in life. According to the study, Asians are particularly optimistic about the next generation’s financial prospects. Not in South Korea.

The country is known for its high PISA scores and private cram schools where pupils of all ages study until midnight. Nowhere in the world is the percentage of young people with a college or vocational degree higher – and in Korea, they are also the youngest. If they do find a job they work the second-highest working hours in an OECD country, outranked only by Mexico. In fact president Moon decided only recently that Koreans needed a break and decreed an extra day off over this year’s Chuseok, the Korean harvest festival. Korean governments have made it a point to invest in their country’s education system, currently 5.9% of its GDP (OECD average: 5.2%) with a 9% increase in education expenditure[5]. But despite all these efforts Korea has the fastest growing youth unemployment rate among the 35 OECD member states.

Numbers like this don’t come without consequences. In South Korea today, society is facing major changes when it comes to its next generation. The traditional focus on the group is eroding in favour of individualism, but where some effects can be seen in other developed countries as well – delayed and overall less marriages, women focusing on careers rather than offspring, single-person households as the norm rather than the exception – Koreans are adding an extra twist: businesses of all kinds are capitalizing on the Honjoks or loners, restaurants offer partitioned booths for single dinners or even single drinking at a bar, you can apply for a credit card catered to the specific needs of singles and buy watermelons the size of apples. The latest trend is to have a “single wedding”: photo shoot, ceremony and presents included, the only thing missing being a spouse[6].

South Korea is not only a country with dramatically low birth rates, it also has increasingly high suicide rates, both of which are reactions to the country’s social and economic inequalities. Moon Jae-in, who was elected as South Korea’s 19th president in a snap-election in May this year, made the reduction of inequality a top priority in his economic pledges. In his campaign he vowed to create 810,000 jobs in the public sector, raise the minimum wage to more than KRW 10,000 (about €8) by the year 2020 and reduce legal working hours from 68 to 52. Upon celebrating his first 100 days in office Moon, who is enjoying sky-high popular approval ratings at about 80%, received positive grades for his first moves towards this direction. A KRW 11trn supplementary budget that focuses on jobs and social welfare was put forward immediately after his inauguration in June[7].

Yet the biggest challenges are still ahead. South Korea, the country of Samsung, Hyundai and Daewoo, has what is called a strongly segmented labour market. 41.3% work in firms with less than 10 employees. Those micro firms are characterized by low wages, precarious employment, large gaps in social insurance coverage and near total absence of worker representation. And there is another quite pronounced weakness: Young women in South Korea are considerably worse off.

Conclusion

Finding solutions will not be easy. Critics have warned for quite some time that the policy mix of austerity and tough labour market reforms will not solve the problem but rather exacerbate precariousness and inequality[8]. In this respect Moon’s determination to tackle the issue by directly spending money on the creation of new jobs in the public sector in combination with a reform of fiscal and social policies is boding well. He is after all the president of the Sampo generation, who might have given up on dating, but still believe in political participation.