Chaebol is the term used to describe a large industrial conglomerate that is run and controlled by an owner or family in South Korea. Some of these conglomerates are easily recognisable worldwide, such as Samsung and Hyundai. They have helped propel South Korea’s economy through the thick and thin of the post-war era. These companies provided South Koreans with well-paid and secure jobs, providing a gateway into the middle-class for many baby boomers.
However, these same conglomerates are what birthed the strict, hierarchical corporate culture that we see in South Korea today. Society has begun forcing certain expectations onto the younger generation due to the influence of the corporate culture. Despite the good wages and job security, millennials are finding white-collar jobs exhausting and unfulfilling. With economic growth stagnating and competition from lower cost producers weighing on wages, even millennials who graduated from top universities and secured chaebol jobs say they are less inclined to try to fulfil society’s expectations.
Similar issues among younger workers are being seen globally. However, South Korea’s strict hierarchical corporate culture and oversupply of college graduates with similar skills make the problem worse, says Ban Ga-woon, a labour market researcher at state-run Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training.
Yoon Chang-hyun’s parents told him to get his sanity checked when he quit his secure job as a researcher at Samsung Electronics Co in 2015 to start his own YouTube channel. Yoon told Reuters that he earned a hefty 65 million won (US$57,619) a year. Samsung also provided him with some of the best benefits and healthcare, enough to make any fresh college graduate green with envy. Even so, Yoon chose to give it all up in favour of an uncertain career as an internet content provider.
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. These labourers have become so burned out and disillusioned by the strict expectations and fluctuating economy that high wages and generous benefits are no longer enough to satisfy their ego.
Some young Koreans have gone as far as 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 a flat. 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.
A prestigious chaebol job still remains a strong desire of many graduates, however. Especially with the country mired in its worst job slump since 2009 and youth joblessness near a record high. Samsung Electronics is still the most desired workplace for graduates as of 2019, a survey of 1,040 jobseekers 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 (Korea) of London-based recruitment agency Robert Walters Plc.