Last month, nearly 500,000 young people aged 15 to 29 gave up looking for a job.
According to Statistics Korea, the population of young people choosing to be unemployed without looking for jobs increased to 497,000 in February, the largest number since related statistics were first compiled in January 2003.
To make matters worse, youth employment shrank for four months in a row and the recent shrinkage was the biggest since February 2021.
The overall employment situation was not positive, either.
Employment expanded by 312,000 in February from a year earlier, but employment expansion slowed for nine months straight after reaching its peak in May last year.
Of more concern is the decrease in employment in two key demographics -- people aged 15 to 29 and those in their 40s, for whom employment has declined for eight months in a row.
That the number of young people who gave up searching for a job rose to an all-time high amid such steadily subsiding youth employment hints at a gloomy future for the country.
The employment circumstances for young people are not great. A Federation of Korean Industries survey found that just 45 percent of the 500 biggest companies in terms of sales plan to recruit entry-level employees in the first half of this year.
In contrast with young people, the number of employees aged 60 and above more than doubled in 10 years.
Last month, employment in the 60 and above age group was 5.77 million, the highest ever for a February figure. In February 2013, 2.73 million people in the same age group were employed.
With society aging rapidly amid a record-low birthrate, the influx of old people into the labor force has swelled, but 1 in 4 of them are engaged in low-paying jobs or on short-term contracts. This is also an indication that poverty among older people is becoming a serious problem.
The ultimate solution to unemployment lies in companies creating decent jobs, whether for the old or for the young.
Of course, this is a long-term solution that will take a while to bear fruit. But there are other alternative approaches the government can take in the short term.
Public employment programs, for example, can be a lifeline for old people living hand to mouth. The government needs to develop public job programs for seniors unable to find alternative employment. Such initiatives often have bad stereotypes attached, such as the impression that they waste taxpayers' money. The government should work to promote such initiatives and demonstrate that they add value to society as a whole. Using public work programs to make employment data look good, a tactic used by the previous administration, is something to be avoided.
Youth unemployment is an equally big issue as unemployment caused by the mismatch in the types of jobs that firms are advertising and the types of jobs that people are looking for or have the qualifications to do.
The semiconductor industry is predicted to require nearly 30,000 workers over the next decade, but the industry is struggling to find qualified individuals to fill those slots. We should strive to increase the number of semiconductor majors in universities to keep up with demand. College education custom-tailored to the needs of industrial sites should also be strengthened.
Hyundai Motor recently advertised 400 entry-level blue collar job openings for the first time in 10 years, and more than 100,000 people are estimated to have applied. The company did not disclose the actual number of applicants.
This fierce competition is attributable to stark wage differences.
According to a comparison of wages as of June 2021 by the Employment and Labor Ministry, irregular jobs at large firms and regular and irregular jobs at small and mid-sized firms paid respectively 69.1 percent, 58.6 percent and 45.6 percent of what a regular worker at a large firm earns.
Such wage gaps are likely to widen further as the economy develops.
Many young people would rather be unemployed than work for low wages in small and medium-sized companies. Their behavior is to some extent understandable, considering the substantial wage gap and the difficulty of changing jobs.
Deregulation and policy support are needed to create more private-sector jobs. At the same time, the government and industries should put their heads together to figure out how to resolve the increasing polarization of the job market.