By Kiki Sideris
Do-young Heo is done with studying day and night. Now, he wants to go snorkeling and bungee jumping, even if his parents disapprove.
That’s because he just discovered the term “YOLO,” or “you only live once.”
Says Heo, “If you hesitate in some moment, [your] chance will be gone. I think it’s right to only concentrate on immediate happiness.” Heo is a 25-year-old student at Dongguk University, a top Korean university in Seoul.
Americans often shrug and say “YOLO” right before they are about to do something they might regret. But young South Koreans are redefining the term, attempting to break free from the set standards of the older generation, which believes that people must have a stable job with a high salary in order to be successful and happy.
The idea sprouted last year after South Korean cable television network JTBC launched “Hyori’s Homestay,” a reality TV show starring celebrity couple Lee Hyori and Lee Sang-soon. Young Koreans were enticed by Hyori’s life because she retired early and took time to appreciate the little things in life.
This is exactly what the younger generation dreams of nowadays, according to Chang Lae Kim, a South Korean movie director and adjunct film professor at the Seoul Institute of Technology.
“The younger generation [is] more focused on being happy and living an easy life than making money,” Kim said.
That might be tough, given that the number of jobless college graduates hit a record high in May. It reached 402,000, up from 76,000 last year, according Statistics Korea. That’s 35.8 percent of the 1.12 million total jobless people in the country. In May 2000, they only accounted for 14.2 percent.
“Everybody is worried about finding a job because of expectations of what companies want,” said Jeong Hyeom Park, a 25-year-old student of Buddhism at Dongguk University. He wants to be a novelist or a writer for Paper Magazine. “I will be satisfied working a part-time job. My first goal is to write very good stories, but if I can’t achieve that, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Companies like Samsung get thousands of applicants every year, but cannot guarantee employment to everyone. In 2014, a record number of 200,000 applicants competed for 14,000 jobs at Samsung. That’s one of the reasons these companies set such high expectations for prospective employees. Along with relative job certifications, candidates need a high grade point average, as well as high scores on aptitude tests and English writing and speaking tests. Chinese proficiency is preferred, too.
Nowadays, finding employment at a reputable company like Samsung is nearly impossible without graduating from a SKY university. SKY refers to the top three universities in Korea, similar to the Ivy League system in the United States. It is made up of Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yeon-sei University.
Prospective employees expect this, so they start preparing from elementary school by taking additional classes at cram schools. But cramming isn’t always enough.
“[The] Korean higher education system and atmosphere is far from the real world,” said Dr. Young-Dall Lee, a professor of entrepreneurship at Dongguk University in Seoul. “The higher education institutions do not educate and train their students to be adopted [to] the real world. It is the big educational gap between academia and the real world.”
So young Koreans settle for work at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are not stable in terms of job security and compensation terms, but they are enough to allow young people to maintain the “YOLO” lifestyle.
Many older Koreans scoff at this idea. But the younger generation doesn’t care. With the threat of annihilation from North Korea and a national duty of conscription into the military for South Korean men, young people want to enjoy life. And that’s why they’re now embracing the YOLO lifestyle, seven years after Canadian hip-hop artist Drake debuted the term in his song “The Motto.”
“They [the older generation] disagree with the idea of YOLO because, especially here in Korea, the term YOLO kind of represents people who don’t live their lives in a proper way,” Heo said.
For older Koreans, someone who lives a “proper” life is one who has a stable job with sufficient pay, a beautiful spouse and children.
They refer to young Koreans as the “sampo,” or “give up,” generation. This refers to the people who feel they must give up three major life events: dating, marriage, and having children.
In turn, the country’s fertility rate, or the average number of babies women are expected to have in their lifetime, is a major concern. It hit a record low of 1.07 children per woman in 2017, compared to the global average of 2.5.
But the country’s youth defines happiness differently than their elders. Jinnam Lee, a 27-year-old worker for a shipping company said that happiness is not equivalent to large sums of money.
“My parent’s generation was very poor, so they’re obsessed with money,” he said. “We [the younger generation] still care about money, but I’m not the kind of guy who is obsessed with money. If I can live a stable, happy life, and get a beautiful wife, that’s it.”
The differences between the older and younger generation remain firm.
“I try to tell the students, ‘Don’t think of the present, think of the future,’ especially in the changing job market today,” said Sun-hong Kim, a guidance counsellor at Dongguk Girls’ High School in Seoul. “They don’t listen.”
“We have to enjoy it,” said Diana Yung, a 15-year-old high school student. “It’s our life, it’s not their life.”