People walk through the Hongdae area of Seoul. (Yonhap)
“I gave job-hunting my all, but now I’m burned out and don’t feel like challenging myself.”
This sentiment was shared by a Korean individual in their 20s. When asked in a Statistics Korea survey what they did last week, they answered that they were “taking a break.”
In 2023 alone, an average of 410,000 Koreans between the ages of 15 and 29 are neither employed nor strictly unemployed. At a time in their lives when they should be going out into the world and building their resumes, why are so many young Koreans “taking a break”?
According to the “Economically Active Population Survey in October 2023” released by Statistics Korea on Wednesday, there were 28.764 million people employed in Korea in October, an increase of 346,000 year-on-year.
The number of employed people has increased for three consecutive months. At 63.3%, the employment rate reached a record high in October while the unemployment rate (2.1%) hit a record low, mainly due to job growth in the service industry.
But even in the midst of the hiring boom, many young Koreans say they are “taking a break.” The number of young people who said they “took a break” instead of looking for work in the past four weeks averaged 410,000 per month from January through October of this year (366,000 in October).
The number of youths “taking a break” peaked in 2020 (448,000), the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, up from 269,000 in 2016. Though the figure had begun to decline in the time since, it’s recently been on the uptick. The proportion of youths out of work and not looking out of the total youth population also stopped declining after 2020 (5.0%) and rebounded, reaching 4.9% by October this year.
A report released by the Ministry of Economy and Finance on measures for promoting the entry of youth into the labor market sheds some light on why young people are taking time off. The data includes the findings of a survey of 2,826 young adults who took a break from work and in-depth interviews with 45 of them.
Young adults cited “difficulty finding the job they wanted” (33%) and “preparing for the next job” (24%) as the main reasons for taking time off. Of these young people, 75% had work experience and 65% intended to seek work. This shows that the entrenched dual structure of Korea’s labor market, the spread of rolling recruitment, and the demand for experienced workers have made it harder for young people to break into quality jobs.
There were also instances of people taking breaks due to anxieties about life in the workforce. Some had experienced corporate life but were unable to adapt to their workplace and quit, while others were not motivated to participate in society and chose to isolate themselves or become recluses.
In an in-depth interview, a man in his late 20s who had experience working said that he had quit his job “because I felt like I wasn’t doing a good enough job.” Another young man in his late 20s who had no work experience and hadn’t looked for a job in more than three years said, “I want to contribute to society, but I don’t think I can pull my own weight.”
Based on this analysis, Korea’s government has come up with measures tailored to the types of people who are not in education, employment or training by providing customized employment services to jobseekers and supporting the spread of youth-friendly corporate cultures to keep employed people from dropping out of the labor market. Measures to support vulnerable youth, such as helping isolated and reclusive youth return to society, have also been put in place. The related budget allocated in next year’s budget is about 1 trillion won (US$763 million).
“There are concerns that if these ‘breaks’ become prolonged, the employability and quality of work from the youth may decrease, and the potential growth rate of our economy may decrease as more youth stay outside the labor force,” said an official from the Ministry of Economy and Finance.
While government support measures are necessary, some argue that an economic recovery is the more fundamental solution.
“The economic cycle and the number of people taking a break are highly correlated. When there are fewer jobs than desired, the population of youth outside the labor force increases,” said Kim Sung-teak, a senior research fellow at the Korea Labor Institute. “Employment policies treat the symptoms rather than the underlying cause, so economic and industrial policies that can address the underlying causes should be promoted together for greater effectiveness.”
By Ahn Tae-ho, staff reporter; Park Jong-o, staff reporter
Please direct questions or comments to [email@example.com]