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[Weekender] A case for Korean millennials in the workplace

Millennials everywhere get a bad rap, and South Korea is no exception.

As more millennials join the workforce, theories and assumptions about the millennial ways abound.

Millennial workers have been called weak and entitled, or are portrayed as not trying hard enough. They also hold a reputation for being quitters and job-hoppers.

But blaming the “millennial mindset” for traits seen in young workers can prevent us from seeing the whole picture, experts say.


(123rf)
(123rf)

For today’s youths, getting full-time paid employment no longer means a steady job.

“In the case of my parents’ generation, most companies thrived in the growing economy, at least before the 1997-98 financial crisis,” said Seo Ye-jin, 25. “You could expect to stay at one job until you hit retirement age.”

“But now, sluggish economic growth has spurred companies to downsize, by hiring less and forcing employees to resign -- the idea of job security has become sort of a thing of the past.”

Seo said her generation sought to develop skill sets that would allow them to stay economically active after they retired or were otherwise compelled to leave their jobs.

“People are thinking about the next step even after landing a full-time position because they know it may not last.”

This is why millennials tend to think less of a particular company as their end goal, and look instead for opportunities where they can build their expertise and gain a competitive edge, according to headhunting platform Wanted’s head of business Nam Song-hyun.

The lack of job security gave rise to the trend of “saladenting” -- a neologism combining salaried worker and student -- as workers try to stay afloat amid the flagging economy.

Such was the case for Lee Hyun-jung, 25, who said she was studying while working full-time.

Lee, who began her second job in 2018, recently enrolled in a graduate course in hopes of upgrading her work performance and enjoying future job opportunities.

“The anxiety over status is real for young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. You are not guaranteed a stable job, and it’s not like there is a social safety net you could fall back on,” she said.

While financial security is a major concern, millennials also struggle to cope with workplace norms that older generations of Koreans are comfortable with.

As with other age groups, Nam said millennial job seekers are chiefly interested in the pay. But other considerations matter too, such as welfare, benefits and the corporate culture.

Jang Ji-hyeon, 28, who works at a public enterprise in Daejeon, said she had experienced what she felt was a generation gap with her superiors.

“For instance, my boss loves office nights out -- which involve drinking more often than not -- and is openly unhappy with the fact that the junior staffers don’t seem willing to tag along,” she said.

“Post-work gatherings were a matter of course in work cultures in the past, but most young workers I know prefer to leave time for personal life after work hours.”

She said the cultural disparity sometimes led to entry-level employees leaving jobs.

“Not many (in junior positions) can stand up to their managers and say no, so they end up transferring to a new job where they may be better suited culture-wise.”

Another millennial, Cho Sung-jin, 28, who works in the media industry, said the Korean work culture was not catching up fast enough with the demands of the changing times and the expectations of young workers.

“Daunting workloads that should be distributed among several workers are heaped on one person, resulting in frequent overtime work,” he said.

“On top of that, hierarchy within a group is extremely rigid. I would apologize to my workplace seniors for things that I’m not responsible for just to avoid conflict.”

Cho said the top-down structure made communication difficult, which he found frustrating.

“How could young employees have a meaningful input when they are expected to say yes to everything?”

According to a December survey of 1,831 people by a recruitment website, 87.6 percent of employees left their first jobs -- 30.6 percent of them within the first year and 15.4 percent within the first six months.

Human resources management professor Yu Gyu-chang of Hanyang University said the hierarchical work culture used to get a pass, until millennials came along.

“Prior generations such as Gen Xers would put up with it and say, ‘What can you do, this is just the way it is’ -- but not millennials.”

The millennial resistance to toxic traditions of the past may be changing things for the better, as companies take steps to establish a more flexible work culture to attract and retain millennial talent.

An LG Electronics public relations official told The Korea Herald the company had reduced the number of job grades from five to three, to create more lateral relationships among employees. Samsung Electronics employees now use the same honorific (“nim”) to address one another, as opposed to using job titles in line with the old convention, according to an official from the company.

Sociologist Shin Jin-wook at Chungang University said one thing that characterized Korean millennials was their sense of resignation and helplessness.

“Millennials are job-hopping because there are too few good jobs available to begin with,” he said, explaining that the fault lies with the system.

“In the news, they repeatedly witness stories of dream schools and jobs being handed to children of politicians and chaebol, while they strain after a spot at an internship or a temp job. Trust in a fair system has been eroded.

“Millennials are spending their youth in a period of recession. Social mobility has been stifled over the course of the past few decades,” he said. “There is no promise of an affluent future awaiting them, the kind that older generations experienced.”

But once millennials come to the fore, the prospects are not so bleak, according to Shin.

“Millennials, who are less accommodating of injustice than any other generation, are expected to take the lead in forming a more progressive society,” he said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)
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