By Kim Tong-hyung
An alarming number of young people are trapped in unemployment, official figures show, underlining a deteriorating job market that has older Koreans scrambling to work beyond their retirement age.
The plague of youth unemployment has arguably been the most painful effect of the recent financial crisis, raising fears of a generation lost to joblessness.
The unemployment rate of 15 to 24-year-olds was measured at 7.3 percent as of May, according to Statistics Korea, up by nearly a percentage point over a 12-month span.
The reality is even worse than the jobless rate indicates as the national statistical office has 5.37 million out of the 9.61 million people in the age group put under the bloating category of ``economically inactive,’’ describing those who are neither in work nor seeking employment.
The number of economically active people in the 15-24 age bracket was measured at 4.24 million in May, representing a year-on-year drop of 61,000. About 3.93 million of them were in paid employment, down by 98,000 compared to the same month last year.
``There are an increasing number of students halting their college studies as they struggle to finance their higher education and choose to scale the employment ladder earlier than they otherwise would have. Many students are also taking time off to advance their linguistic studies and other skills as the competition for jobs intensify,’’ said an official from Statistics Korea’s Employment Statistics Bureau.
``Of the young people who quit their first jobs, about 43 percent of them complained about work conditions and compensation, which indicates there are fewer quality jobs going around.’’
It’s taking an average of 11 months for 15 to 24-year-olds to find employment. And as hard as it is to find them, the quality of jobs appears to be getting increasingly worse. About 60 percent of these youngsters settled for non-regular and precarious positions for their first jobs, and 20 percent of them failed to find contracts that lasted for more than a year.
While the hard times are biting into young Koreans, the specter of a long and laborious life are beginning to haunt the middle-aged and older as they begin to accept they will be forced to work beyond their retirement ages.
The number of people aged between 55 and 79 was measured at 9.95 million in May, up 475,000 from a year earlier and representing more than 24 percent of Koreans over 15. Among them, about 5.05 million were in paid employment, up nearly 6 percent from the same month last year.
In a survey of people in this age group, 60 percent of respondents said they intend to work beyond the standard retirement age, with 32 percent of them saying that they need the money.
Critics have long accused the government of softening unemployment statistics by inflating the economically-inactive group.
The economically-inactive group conventionally includes students, those looking after families or homes, the short- and long-term sick and those who have retired early. But Korean officials also count first-time jobseekers and those preparing for civil service exams as economically inactive. Koreans who have worked for at least an hour a week are labeled as employed.
The country’s official unemployment rate was 3.3 percent as of June, but some economists believe the country’s ``real’’ jobless rate could be touching double digits when counting in the number of first-time jobseekers and those working less than 18 hours per week.
Economically inactive people accounted for 15.4 million of the 16.2 million Koreans sidelined from the labor market in June, posing serious questions to policymakers’ claims of having unemployment under control.