Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Korea Facing: The New Generation

By Don Southerton, BCW Editor

In a recent Bloomberg News Asia edition it's noted some younger Koreans no longer dream of working for a top Group.  No surprise here, since the Korean workplace "generation gap" continues to grow.

In fact, I work with teams from Hyundai and with two recent startups. Some norms are common, but I see the startups offering more flexible work hours and an opportunity for junior teams to express themselves and impact decisions.

I've seen this change unfolding over time. I recall several years ago chatting with two Korean students at the University of California, San Diego Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies. My question was what they planned to do upon graduation and return to Korea.  One 2nd year grad student rather coldly said he'd probably have to work for Samsung for a year or two then ( with a smile) look for a startup. The other student added saying Samsung was a "meat grinder."

The Bloombery News article goes on to point out... Sim Cheol Hwan is one of the countless twentysomethings around the world who have adopted Facebook (FB ) founder Mark Zuckerberg as their patron saint. The 27-year-old engineering student wants to take a break from college in Seoul to make apps for mobile phones. "I don't want to get a job at a top 10 Korean company," says the Hanyang University student. "Zuckerberg's success proves that there is a lot of money to be made" in startups.

Not long ago, South Korean graduates dreamed of lifetime jobs at Samsung Electronics or one of the other chaebol, the sprawling conglomerates that dominate industries from electronics to autos to shipping. Now, inspired by the success of companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, many are starting businesses. Thousands of aspiring entrepreneurs powered an 83 percent surge in the number of South Korean technology startups in the four years through 2011, according to Korea Venture Business Assn., a private organization that supports new enterprises. "Everyone used to think if you go to a good college, that means you'll get a job at a big conglomerate," says Kim Dae Ho, professor of service management at Mokwon University. "Now people are thinking they can also start their own company and run it, rather than working for someone else. The whole environment has changed."

Young risk-takers like Sim remain a minority. Samsung was the most favored employer among South Korean job seekers, followed by Hyundai Motor, according to a March survey by SaraminHR, which operates an online job site. It's no wonder: Salaries at Samsung average 77.6 million won ($68,300) a year, according to the company's annual report, more than three times South Korea's per capita income in 2011. 

[BTW According to a more recent report,  Hyundai Motor Group now pays even better than Samsung].

The nation's top 30 conglomerates employed 6.8 percent of the country's workforce last year, according to a June 6 report by the Federation of Korean Industries.

South Korea's work culture, with its emphasis on hierarchy, groupthink, and long hours at the office, may be starting to take a toll. South Koreans average 2,193 hours at work annually, the most of any of the 34 member nations in the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development, according to 2011 OECD data. In a life satisfaction study of 32 countries undertaken by a network of social scientists called the World Values Survey Association, Korea came in 31st. Surveys by Korean research institutes have found that happiness among teenagers, who spend nights and weekends in cram schools prepping for university exams, is the lowest in the OECD.

"There are more of us now who believe in the importance of finding what is meaningful for you, not what society dictates should be meaningful or good for you," says Sim.

Even as Samsung's fall recruitment season nears, engineering student Sim has no plans to visit the company's careers website. "I don't think I can maximize my full potential at these companies," he says. "Ultimately, any person starting their own business should think big."

Source: September 13, 2012
Yang is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Seoul.
Yoon is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Seoul.

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