By Lee Hyo-sik
The number of workers in their 20s and 30s has fallen to an all-time low, making Korea's workforce older and weakening its economic vitality.
According to the National Statistical Office (NSO) Wednesday, the number of people in their 20s and 30s who are employed dropped 1.2 percent to 9.92 million last year from 10.03 million in 2007, falling to below the 10 million for the first time since the statistical office began compiling such data.
The number of workers in their 20s decreased 2.5 percent to 3.89 million during the one-year period, while 30-somethings declined 0.4 percent to 6.03 million.
Additionally, the number of workers aged 20-49, the most economically active population, fell 0.4 percent to 16.51 million last year from 2007, accounting for 69.8 percent of the total labor force of 23.58 million, down from 70.5 percent a year ago.
Domestic companies have been downsizing their workforces recently in the wake of the global financial credit crunch and economic downturn, hitting university and high school graduates particularly hard.
Analysts also say the number of workers among the 20- and 30-somethings has decreased over the years, as they tend to shy away from low paying, labor-intensive jobs. Instead, many university graduates are studying longer to get decent work that offers higher salaries and greater job security. Such jobs have become more difficult to obtain due to a decrease in their number and increased competition among jobseekers.
Conversely, the number of workers aged over 40 has increased. Employees in their 40s rose 1 percent to 6.55 million in December from a year earlier, while those aged over 50 increased 3.4 percent to 6.94 million over the same period, according to the statistical office.
Workers over 50 accounted for 29.4 percent of the workforce in 2008, up from 28.7 percent, as more senior citizens took low paying and manual jobs in the service sector, replacing younger employees.
An NSO official said a growing number of older Koreans, including retirees, are entering the labor market, as they are forced to continue working due to inadequate retirement savings. He said the majority of older workers engage in low-paid positions, usually involving manual service-sector labor.
The job market is expected to tighten further this year. In December, the world's 13th largest economy had lost 12,000 jobs year-on-year compared to the same month in 2007.
The Korea Economic Research Institute predicted the nation will lose about 100,000 jobs this year, the first time since 2003, when 30,000 jobs disappeared following the bursting of the credit card bubble.
The Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI) also expected the number of new job offerings to decline by 30,000 this year. The LG Economic Research Institute said the economy will lose about 40,000 jobs, adding the dismissal of non-regular workers, early retirement programs and corporate retrenchment, among other factors, will hit the nation's labor market hard.
The Bank of Korea (BOK) and the Korea Institute of Finance predicted the number of employed people will increase by 40,000 and 20,000 this year, respectively.