Korea

Gap Years

Seoul Rush-Hour Subway / Credit: Marcelo Druck

Seoul Rush-Hour Subway / Credit: Marcelo Druck

To many Americans in my generation, “regular employment” seems an alien concept. More would likely bristle at the notion of “permanent employment,” a term — in the U.S. — evoking golden handcuffs at best and endless drudgery at worst. We like to fancy ourselves free to rocket after opportunities as we see fit. Stability, if it factors into our equation at all, often registers after fulfillment.

And so it might be tempting look at the lost generation in Japan or the employment struggles of youth in France and consider them foreign phenomena. The idea that you get one chance, and only one, to lock in a life-long career is understandably frightening. In a couple Financial Times articles, the reporters document the perpetual economic limbo of Japanese males who could not become salarymen, and the tribulations of smart (and perhaps overqualified) French who bounce between temporary contracts.

In South Korea, the divide between a “regular” worker and a “non-regular” one is stark, as explained well by Nathan Park in this WSJ blog. The result is a decidedly stratified labor market. People who might otherwise be fired aren’t, and older folks hold the lion’s share of the secure jobs. Young graduates, meanwhile, are marginalized. They can’t get steady jobs, have little to no benefits, and end up delaying marriage and living with their parents well past 30.

Now that doesn’t seem so alien at all.

There are peculiarities about Korea’s work environment. The social hierarchies and a seniority-based system for advancement are the norm (although at least the latter is changing). There are surely other differences in France and Japan. But for well-educated young people post-2008 crisis, I would argue the work situations are converging. It seems just as true in the U.S. that, if you cannot secure that first foothold right after college and begin demonstrating a clear career trajectory, you may “boomerang” and have your own personal lost decade.

The Korean government’s solution to this is labor reform through what’s called a “salary peak system.” Its Ministry of Employment & Labor explains there are several ways this can work: maintain retirement age while reducing salary; retire and then rehire at a reduced salary; or reduced work hours (for, of course, reduced pay). The idea seems to be to free up capital for companies to hire new workers rather than pay for those on their way out. The system is being implemented across state-run institutions already. Hyundai Motor has said it will introduce such a system next year.

It’s easy to see why some see this as just shoving the old folks aside, punishing those who have worked all their lives, or as assigning blame to unions who have built up “regular” worker protections. No Kwang-pyo, director of the Korea Labor & Society Institute, takes a critical view of the move and assigns blame to Korea’s chaebol conglomerates for exploiting and locking in the stratified labor market. Any labor reform, he writes in an editorial, must be accompanied by a broader “economic democratization” that condemns the “greed” of the country’s industrial giants.

So what is the real source of the problem, and what’s the fix? The IMF last year recommended a much more mixed approach, by first dismantling the “relatively high degree” of protections for regular workers (thereby cutting the incentive to use non-regular ones); it posited that policies aimed at reducing exceedingly long working hours could sweeten this bitter medicine. After that, raising mandatory retirement age limits while “remodulating” the seniority-based wage system should be the next steps, it said. The IMF thinks improving protections for non-regular workers and broadening access to training wouldn’t be bad ideas either.

Conceptually at least, I think I might agree with these remedies. But I question the feasibility of all of this, and how it might really turn out. It’s hard not to ponder the drifting millenial Americans. The ability to compare between Korea and the States may be limited, but if thinning worker protections and benefits were really the way toward a more egalitarian economy, you might not have so much continued soul-searching in the U.S. right now.

Paths

Photo Credit: Linus Lee

Photo Credit: Linus Lee

The glow of the convenience store fell out onto the brick sidewalk and cut shadows in the night. The sky was bluish. It never turned completely black in Seoul — not in the summer at least. Ben and I sat in plastic chairs, drinking beers and chewing on dried squid. It was early June but already the days were muggy. Ben wore a dirty t-shirt and was used to the heat. He looked much skinnier than when I had seen him last. I wore a cheap dress shirt and was sweating, still acclimating. To the weather, yes, but mostly to working life.  I had arrived from Wisconsin, where I had bicycled between classes in cooler air and made ends meet after graduating by writing articles for a couple of local papers and slinging coffee. It was a free kind of life. Now I was working fixed weekday hours, shuttling on a packed subway. I often worked weekends and was missing my soon-to-be wife, who would join me in a few weeks after I flew back for a rushed wedding.  In the office, I sat under soft light, editing other reporters’ copy, not writing.  Not having the energy to write. I was exhausted but loathed going to sleep at night.

Ben talked about paths. He was living in a studio that was not meant to be lived in, using the toilet in the building across the street, the one with the karaoke parlor. One night the man from the karaoke parlor told him not to come back, so he had started walking farther, to the new Homeplus superstore. The bathroom there was cleaner, at least. He was making art and proofreading magazine copy for money. As a Korean adoptee, his visa gave him the right to live almost like a normal citizen; he didn’t have to worry about his work status as long as he could eat. He had had ideas about how he should be living, where he should be at the point life where he now found himself. But he had thrown them out. Now he was encouraging me — a friend who shared his name, but very little else in terms of lifestyle — to do the same.

As I drank, I told him my doubts. Yes, I was back in Korea, like I had wanted to be. But had I given up up too much of myself in making the journey? The things and people I had associated myself with were all gone. The cycling, the coffee, the bar chat with friends obsessed with nice bike parts and expensive denim. Yes, they were external, perhaps trivial. But they were my reference points.  Before leaving Wisconsin, an editor at a paper I freelanced for had told me about several staff openings becoming available and encouraged me to apply. There was a one-bedroom apartment vacant in a building with a view of the lake, a place that my new wife and I could probably afford if I got a job. How nice that would be, I thought, driving past the “For Rent” sign. I imagined drinking coffee in the mornings and looking out over the water, bicycling around town to cover the day’s news, just like I had been. Continuity. It was spring and the Midwest felt fresh after the long winter.

Outside the convenience store, I wondered, had I taken the wrong step? I asked Ben and then sat back, taking a long pull of local beer and thinking about getting another can.

He shook his head; I had it all wrong. The direction that felt comfortable, the step that felt natural — that was the Path.  The term, the way Ben used it, was not an alternate take on Eastern philosophy. The Path was not the Tao, it was not the Way, it was not the Dharma. It was the Path you were supposed to get off of, eject from. It was the gravity of circumstance, the constellation of the obvious. Back country was where I should be headed, Ben said, however foolish or awkward it may feel. And then I would adjust, any way I knew how.

***

The ensuing month did not unfold easily.  I moved out of a dorm-like space I had inhabited when I realized it was not the kind of place I could take my new bride back to. It was essentially a bedroom with a common kitchen area — or hasuk-jib, in Korean — shared entirely by male students, most of whom were foreign. We spent little time in the shared area, and when we did, it was often just in passing from the bathroom in the morning, or waiting to shower with towels wrapped around our waists. It was cheap and  the landlady required no deposit.

J asked me one night on the phone, “Is the bathroom clean at least?” I hesitated, thinking over the random patches of mold and how far one could stretch the term “clean.” My extended silence dismayed her, and I took the hint. But because I had just moved in two weeks ago and told the landlady we would be there for three months until J’s school put us up in new digs, I decided to slip out in the night and inform the landlady later, in case she tried to persuade me otherwise.

I took my hiking backpack and a duffel aboard a cross-town bus, flopping down 30 minutes later in a truly clean studio apartment my friend helped me find that would accommodate a short-term stay. During the packed bus ride, a couple middle-aged men asked me where I was headed. They laughed when I told them I was moving. “You don’t have much!” one of them said. I took a kind of pride when he said it.

***

In Wisconsin, moving from place to place had always been about cycling for me. I had a two-block commute from our apartment to the bike shop where I worked in the summer; more often than not, I rode my bike anyway. If it was below freezing but sunny — and it often was both — and J and I were thinking about brunch on the other side of town, I would ride and she would drive. My set of friends was the same; you could tell who was at the local cafe by which bikes were parked outside. The machine was a part of my identity.

It wasn’t until moving back to Seoul that J and I really started walking again. Our apartment was about a mile away from a path along a stream that ran off of the Han River. We walked to the trail and then walked another good three miles until the 7-Eleven on the banks of the Han, where we could take off our shoes in the grass and eat cup ramen.

On weekends, we picked neighborhoods in Seoul we hadn’t been to and we walked around. Many times, we found nothing particularly different from other parts of the city, or even the neighborhood we lived in. Beer halls, karaoke parlors, coffee shops designed in endless variations of the same quirky theme. But the walking was discovery nonetheless, and a salve for the inactive lifestyle of the work week that I was still grating against.

J’s father, a runner who had completed marathons in all 50 U.S. states and on all seven continents, had ripped out a page from a Reader’s Digest and posted it to us, snail mail. It was about the benefits of walking. J and I began quoting it to each other, half jokingly, on longer rambles. “Everyone can walk. Walk, walk, walk. Walk until you’re tired, rest, and then walk some more,” the author wrote. (I initially found the need to note the fact that it was not true that everyone could walk, but after taking the advice long enough, it seemed to be beside the point.)

We had met in Seoul as students, but J and I were now leaving new tracks around the city. Often, though, we retraced steps as a way to touch on a time that now felt long gone: ghost tracks, the byways of former selves. Sometimes, it helped orient us in the present. Other times, the practice was disorienting by virtue of landmarks that had disappeared — or conversely, if everything was exactly the same, but the feeling completely different.

The author Robert McFarlane observed how walking is like writing — foot “prints” like the printed word — and traveling old ways like time travel. “The land itself, filled with letters, words, texts, songs, signs and stories. And always, everywhere, the paths, spreading across counties and countries, recalled as pattern rather than as plot, bringing alignments and discrepancies, elective affinities, shifts from familiar dispositions.”

***

I sat on the sofa one winter evening, more than a year later, with the window cracked and J boiling kimchi stew on the gas burner. I listened to an album on my laptop that a new friend had sent to me. We struck up a conversation on the subway after I admired his bike. He looked like someone I would have been friends with back in Wisconsin.

The album was from the 1970s and by a Korean folk rock singer-songwriter named Han Dae Su. His voice was raspy but powerful, his lyrics woeful and bittersweet. I was hung up on a breathy, harmonica-laden track called “The Wind and I,” trying to memorize the words. It was perfect. The name of the album was “Long, Long Road.”

In that moment, I felt fully at home, and it made me regret all the other moments I had spent feeling uncomfortable and unhappy, or the nights when J and I had simply tuned out watching downloaded American TV shows on the computer. They felt like missed opportunities when we could have been out at concerts or plays, immersing ourselves in the culture of our city.

I couldn’t tell what was the Path and what was just the road I was traveling. The stops I had made along the way: were they necessary resting points, or spots when I had wasted time looking back? Standing where I was, maybe it didn’t even matter.