Yoon Chang-hyun’s parents told him to get his sanity checked when he quit his secure job as a researcher at Samsung Electronics in 2015 to start his own YouTube channel.
The KRW 65 million ($57,619) a year salary – triple South Korea’s average entry-level wage – plus top-notch healthcare and other benefits offered by the world’s biggest smartphone and memory chip maker was the envy of many college graduates.
But burned out and disillusioned by repeated night shifts, narrowing opportunities for promotion and skyrocketing property prices that have pushed home ownership out of reach, the then 32-year old Yoon gave it all up in favour of an uncertain career as an internet content provider.
Yoon is among a growing wave of South Korean millennials ditching stable white collar jobs, even as unemployment spikes and millions of others still fight to get into the powerful, family-controlled conglomerates known as chaebol.
Some young Koreans are also moving out of city for farming or taking blue collar jobs abroad, shunning their society’s traditional measures of success – well-paid office work, raising a family and buying an apartment.
“I got asked a lot if I had gone crazy,” Yoon said. “But I’d quit again if I go back. My bosses didn’t look happy. They were overworked, lonely…”
Yoon now runs a YouTube channel about pursuing dream jobs and is supporting himself from his savings.
Samsung Electronics declined to comment for this article.
Chaebols such as Samsung and Hyundai powered South Korea’s dramatic rise from the ashes of the 1950-53 war into Asia’s fourth-largest economy in less than a generation. Well-paid, secure jobs provided a gateway to the middle-class for many baby boomers.
But with economic growth stagnating and competition from lower cost producers weighing on wages, even milliennials who graduated from top universities and secured chaebol jobs say they are less inclined to try to fulfill society’s expectations.
Similar issues among younger workers are being seen globally. However, South Korea’s strict hierarchical corporate culture and oversupply of college graduates with homogeneous skills make the problem worse, says Ban Ga-woon, a labour market researcher at state-run Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education & Training.
South Koreans had the shortest job tenure among member countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as of 2012, just 6.6 years compared to the average of 9.4 years and 11.5 years in neighbouring Japan.
The same survey also showed barely 55 percent of South Koreans were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest rate in the OECD.
This January, ‘quitting jobs’ appeared on the nation’s top 10 new year resolution list on major social media sites.
‘Don’t tell the boss’
Some workers are even going back to school to learn how to do just that.
A small three-classroom campus in southern Seoul, named “School of Quitting Jobs”, has attracted over 7,000 attendees since opening in 2016, founder Jang Su-han told Reuters.
The 34-year-old Jang, who himself quit Samsung Electronics in 2015 to launch the school, said it now offers about 50 courses, including classes on how-to-YouTube, manage an identity crisis, and how to brainstorm a Plan B.
The school’s rules are displayed at its entrance: “Don’t tell your bosses, say nothing even if you run into a colleague, and never get caught until your graduation.”
“There is strong demand for identity-related courses, as so many of us were too busy with cram schools to seriously think about what we want to do when were teenagers,” he said.
To be sure, the lure of a prestigious chaebol job remains strong, especially with the country mired in its worst job slump since 2009 and youth joblessness near a record high.
Samsung Electronics is still the most desired workplace for graduates as of 2019, a survey of 1,040 job seekers by Saramin, a job portal, showed in February.
However, many entering the workforce are much less willing to accept the long hours or mandatory drinking sessions synonymous with the country’s hierarchical, cutthroat corporate life, says Duncan Harrison, country head of London-based recruitment agency Robert Walters.
“The mindset of people entering the workforce is very different from past generations,” Harrison said.
Youtuber, sports star, cleaner
Among elementary school students, YouTube creator is now the fifth-ranked dream job, behind being a sports star, school teacher, doctor or a chef, a 2018 government poll showed.
Some are choosing a simpler life in the country.
Between 2013 and 2017, South Korea saw a 24 percent increase in the number of households who ditched city life for farming – more than 12,000 in total.
And in the face of dwindling opportunities at home, nearly 5,800 people also went abroad for jobs last year using government-subsidized programmes, more than tripling from 2013, according to government data.
Others left without support or new jobs lined up.
Plant engineer Cho Seung-duk bought one-way tickets to Australia in December with his wife and two kids.
“I don’t think my son could get jobs like mine in South Korea,” said 37 year-old Cho, who moved from Hyundai Engineering & Construction to another top construction firm in 2015 before he emigrated.
“I will probably clean offices in Brisbane, but that’s ok.”