|Choi Seung-bo, 66, stands at the cash register of a convenience store in Gangnam, southern Seoul. / Korea Times photo by Kim Ji-soo|
By Kim Ji-soo
Korea's labor market is undergoing a major change, dogged by a lack of quality and secure jobs.
Coupled with rising living costs and longer life spans, these problems prompt more Koreans across a broader range of age groups in particular the elder to enter the workforce.
The jobs however are not necessarily the traditional lifetime careers Koreans prefer, which are also hard to come by since the labor market shifted to irregular, part-time or contract jobs that entail discrimination in job stability, pay and welfare.
But with the minimum wage having increased to 7,530 won an hour beginning this year, part-time jobs have never been more popular.
Retail workers in Seoul reveal this trend. For nearly two years, Choi Seung-bo, 66, has been working at the cash register of a 7-Eleven convenience store in Gangnam, southern Seoul, eight hours a day.
"My children have left the nest, so what's there for me and my husband to do but stare at each other?" Choi said.
"Also, I feel more energetic and look forward to coming to work."
Choi may well be among the beneficiaries that Democratic Party of Korea Chairperson Choo Mi-ae mentioned in January as the ruling party's New Year plans were disclosed.
Choo had said the higher minimum wage would benefit the young, women and seniors. Choo had said it was the "last hope" to prompt the youth to seek employment, enable people — usually women — to afford their children's private education fees and living expenses, and help seniors avoid poverty.
Choi's reasons for working seem a mixture of social and personal, but she stressed how lucky she is to be in the labor market at her age. Asked if the work at the convenience store is physically rigorous, she said she does not find it so.
In fact, Choi said even her children notice the uptick in her energy and thus reluctantly accepted her return to the workforce.
She does not yet worry about automated cashiers replacing her but is aware of younger workers who may compete for her job.
"I think I am lucky in that my employer prefers older folks, who stay (with the company) for a long time. He said young workers tend to stay only for several months and then leave. I plan to stay healthy and work until 70 and beyond," she said.
"There is a growing shift among workers toward part-time work, such as working part-time or on an hourly basis for a few months through one or more years," said Ahn So-jeong, a senior manager at JobKorea.
"Age, previous job experience and current economic status vary, but we are seeing those from their teens through their older years working to secure a continuous income flow," Ahn said.
Invariably, the shift of Korea's labor market toward irregular work in particular after the 1998 Asian financial crisis — those working part-time or on contracts instead of the traditional lifetime employment —is attributable to the market's greater acceptance of workers from a wider range of age groups.
While Choi works at the convenience store to earn extra cash for occasional meals or small gifts for her children and grandchildren, she said she is aware of the higher life expectancy and the relatively high rate of elderly poverty in Korea.
An OECD report last year showed 42.7 percent of Koreans aged 66 to 75 live in relative poverty, and 60.2 percent of those aged 76 and older do. Both figures are about four times higher than the OECD average.
The retail sector was traditionally dominated by young workers, like 20-something Park In-seo, who has been working at a GS25 convenience store near Myeong-dong for a year.
"I work eight hours a day, and as the minimum wage has gone up, it is manageable to maintain a decent quality of living with only this job," Park said.
"The higher minimum wage definitely makes a difference."
He said he does not work other jobs, and during his time off, he rests and studies.
"I don't necessarily think working part-time jobs is that bad anymore. My parents support me, saying it's good that I bring in income rather than remain unemployed at home," Park said.
A trend in increasing workforce participation across a broader range of age groups may well continue, even though the job market prospects continue to look bleak.
Over the last weekend of February, Statistics Korea said the household led by people in their 40s in Korea earned on average a little over 3.4 million won ($3,150) from October to December, down by 3.1 percent from the same period of the previous year.
Considered one of the most economically active for a long time, the high unemployment among the youth against Korea's sluggish economic growth has brought about the drop.