It's not easy to understand what "Hell Joseon'' means upon hearing it. When I first heard the coined phrase, I thought it was another curse word for a nationally circulated conservative daily. But it was not.
The fact is that it is a buzz-phrase spreading rapidly among the young in our society, meaning that Korea (Joseon) is closer to hell and is devoid of any hope.
Simultaneously going viral these days is the ghastly slogan: "All are equal before a bamboo spear.'' Also, there is "earth spoon,'' a self-deprecating statement by which young people born to poor families lamentably compare their miserable situation to "gold spoon'' or "silver spoon,'' which refers to children from superrich families.
No matter how difficult the reality facing our youngsters is, it's pitiable to find out how hopeless and wrathful they have become.
Another buzz-phrase, the "Opo Generation,'' might reveal their fundamental problems and agony. It refers to a generation that has prematurely given up on five major milestones in life ― a romantic relationship, marriage, childbirth, relationships with other people and home ownership ― because they hardly expect to achieve these goals.
They graduated from universities at the expense of high tuition ― more than seven high school graduates enter college in Hell Joseon ― but getting a job and a stable income has become increasingly difficult. All this prompts them to express their anger at the older generation who appear to be dominating through their vested interests. Most recently, the "N Generation'' has gone viral, referring to the young who have given up on everything in life.
The youth unemployment rate for the 15 to 29 age group was 9 percent last year, more than twice the overall jobless rate of 3.5 percent, according to Statistics Korea. But the bigger problem is that decent jobs seem to be disappearing at a startling pace.
Also frustrating them is that Korea has never been a fair society when it comes to getting hired. According to a survey conducted by the Korea Press Foundation, 58 percent of respondents in their 20s said they felt a personal connection was the key factor in getting a job, whereas 47 percent of people in their 50s cited knowledge and expertise.
A recent online survey of 21,000 young people also found that 88 percent of them said they hated Korea and wanted to leave. And 93 percent replied that they were ashamed of being Korean, with mistrust of the government being the No. 1 cause for that because of big man-made disasters and political brawls.
Their anger is understandable, especially given the distorted reality requiring parents who know the right people to help them get an internship at a fairly good company.
However, older people are also not always enjoying a leisurely life. While it's true they have amassed a certain degree of wealth thanks largely to the property boom during Korea's rapid growth period, their agony is equally formidable. There may be some time before their retirement, but no one knows when the next pink slip might be yours.
People who married late are grappling with children's school expenses, and their concerns run deeper whenever they think of "obligations'' to let their children find good spouses.
Young people may think that the older generation was able to find decent jobs easily, but the truth is that they also went through a rigorous process in their own way before getting hired. There are also many people who wandered from place to place before settling into a job.
But what is clear is that as long as the young confine themselves to blaming the older generation and remain obsessed with pessimism, their lives will hardly improve. There is no question that not all jobseekers can land jobs in nice workplaces no matter how much the government and businesses make efforts to increase jobs for the young.
Therefore the point should be to address the jobless woes among the young. For that matter, older people have little to say because their failed education policy, especially concerning the establishment of new universities, exacerbated the unemployment problem as we see it today.
It's no secret that education bureaucrats in the early 1990s changed the rules to liberalize the opening of universities only if certain ― not that high ― requirements were met. The result has been an entrenched mismatch in the job market; while many young college graduates swarm to large companies, state corporations and public offices, small- and medium-sized companies have serious difficulty in finding workers.
Young job applicants might not accept the older generation's argument that the reason for the high youth unemployment is because they are only looking for well-paying and stable jobs. But it's true they shun smaller firms, which are notorious for long working hours, poor pay and backward corporate culture.
What we need now, therefore, is to consider how we can save our younger generation from their protracted state of joblessness. The most realistic answer might be to make smaller firms far better places to work, not shunned by young jobseekers. Of course, this is easier said than done, but it is what should be done without fail. Reforming our education system will, of course, be an essential prerequisite.
The writer is the executive editor of The Korea Times. Contact him at email@example.com.