It's tough being in your 20s in Korea. With youth unemployment hovering at 7 percent for four or five years running, 20-somethings are being squeezed between hyper-energetic teens and those in their vigorous 30s. The Twens are variously described as the "No Graduation Generation" -- because students delay their graduation to avoid unemployment -- and "Kangaroo Generation" because they stay in their parents' "pouch" when they do graduate.
In sports, teen players like swimmer Park Tae-hwan, figure skater Kim Yu-na and pro-golfer Shin Ji-yai have become nationwide stars. On TV, teen actors like Yoo Seung-ho
(14) and Park Eun-bin
(15) from the popular series "Taewangsashingi" ("The Legend"
, "The Four Guardian Gods of the King") have more fans than their older colleagues. The legendary singer Seo Taiji
and Park Jin-young
, both in their 30s, continue to boast explosive popularity. A survey of 1,319 people age 13 to 65 by market researcher Leespr found that six of the 10 most popular entertainers were in their 30s -- they included Jang Dong-gun
and Bae Yong-joon
, both 35. Blooming actresses like Jeon Do-yeon
, the heroine of this year's Cannes Film Festival, and Kim Hye-soo
(37) show they are by no means past their prime.
Many young people turn their eye to jobs abroad in a tight labor market at home.
Of course, there is still a significant number of superstars in their 20s, Rain, Lee Hyori
and Kim Tae-hee
among them, and they outnumber the other generations. "But the recent wave of stars in their teens and 30s is getting more attention from the public", said a staffer with SM Entertainment Agency.
But outside the entertainment industry, Twens lag behind. Increasing numbers of businesses are therefore shifting their targets to teens with pocket money to spend and to the economically independent 30-somethings. For example, Internet shopping malls have launched services exclusive to teens. Auction, for one, opened a community service called "Club Teenple" for its teen members in August, and D&Shop is wooing teen customers with an online reservation service for leading hair salons. Lotte.com and Gmarket are in preparations to launch similar events targeting teens. Missha, The Face Shop, and other low-priced cosmetic brands are also seeing the potential in teens, who account for about 20 percent of customers. Turning their backs on the 20-somethings, the computer game industry is also targeting those in their 30s. Before the release of a newly developed game program, game developer Hanbit Soft discovered that 30-somethings accounted for 26.8 percent of 211,967 trial users.
"There has been a surge of interest among corporations in marketing strategies targeting teens and those in their 30 as these groups spend more money than those in their 20s", said researcher Choi Suk-hee of Daehong Communications.
But the greatest difficulties involve jobs. The past four to five years of prolonged recession have cut down the number of decent available jobs, creating more and more young unemployed people with college diplomas. As a result, Korea's 20-somethings have become a very self-conscious generation relying on their parents for financial support. In his book "Generation 880,000 won", Wu Seok-hun, a financial expert, concluded that those in their 20s who actually land a job mostly work as non-regular workers whose monthly salary is just W880,000 on average.
Nonetheless, experts say the potential of Korea's 20-somethings remains strong, and they will pick up steam as the mainstay of the workforce once the unemployment problem abates. "The computer-savvy, mainly those in their 20s, will continue to dominate Korea's social and cultural sectors", said Prof. Hwang Sang-min of Yonsei University. Prof. Kim Jin-wu from the same school agreed. "For the better future of Korea, those in their 20s must regain their vigor as the core work force of our economy. It is critical that we expand corporate investment to create more jobs for 20-somethings".