Forty years ago in Korea, a 22-year-old woman would, for the first time, put on makeup and try on expensive dresses as she prepared for marriage. But these days, young women spend an infinite amount of time and money dressing up for what seems like a life-altering event.
But it’s not for a wedding – in fact, many of them doubt they will ever marry and enjoy a family – rather it’s for an ineluctable rite of passage: the dreaded job interview.
That’s right. The stress and tension once associated with weddings now result from a short meeting with a complete stranger that is required for a potential job. And this ritual has only become more central in the lives of young people over the past three years as the economy grows worse. Cosmetic companies, plastic surgery clinics and clothiers make implicit reference to this rite in their advertisements. And the young and inexperienced latch on to this event as a promise of stability in an increasingly disorienting and uncertain world.
As a professor, I have watched the emergence of this cult with dismay. I see young men and women spending large amounts of money practicing for interviews, having professional photographs taken for their resumes and otherwise neglecting their classes and friends to prepare for a single moment, supposedly in which their futures will be determined by the most superficial of criteria. It seems as if the university can do nothing to help our graduates to thrive in the world other than to help them build up their experience with summer internships. A professor is not someone who can offer advice for a lifetime. Rather, we provide just a few required documents in the process.
Sadly, many students flood into graduate schools in the hope that continued studies will somehow afford them some certainty in their lives – even though graduate school cannot provide much in the way of benefits. Permanent positions for students with master’s and doctorate degrees are decreasing.
So the faculty sits by watching helplessly as our students are forced to remodel their lives to match the requirements of the dreaded interview. And yet, if we could think big for a change, if we could use our imagination, we could come up with a new approach to education and the future of our children.
Imagine if universities provided a job to students along with their diploma, rather than simply pushing them out into the cold world. Although at first glance such a proposal may seem unrealistic, if we rethink the nature of education, something similar may be possible.
The program could work something like this: Students entering university would be given a chance to create a venture company together with classmates who have similar or complementary interests in their first or second year of study. The university would help them create this company based upon their studies, their strengths and emerging business opportunities. The venture company started by the students would then permit the students, before graduation, to explore new concepts and consider new approaches to business, to manufacturing or to services.
Those interested in public service could form their own NGOs or other small organizations with their peers. Over the course of four years as an undergraduate, students would learn from their subjects, but also learn how to run the small venture company they created.
Come graduation, the students – whether in groups of three or 10 – would be launched into the world with both a diploma and a venture company to make their way and find their future. The venture company that they are a part of would be subject to strict demands from the university and from financing organizations, but those demands would be no more stressful than the demands made of graduates today, and more helpful to the students than ritual interviews.
There are two key shifts that must take place before such a plan is viable. The first is that Korea must have a policy to assess people’s careers on the basis of their skills and their experience. It is entirely logical that someone who has experience starting his or her own business should be highly evaluated for future employment regardless of the scale of the effort. We should not assume that the only road to success is through a big mainstream corporation.
The other change required is in financing itself. Many youth are deeply discouraged about their futures simply because they cannot find the means to realize their dreams. If banks were required to commit a significant part of their lending and financial assistance to people under the age of 30 (say, 30 or 40 percent), we could see a significant change in the mood among graduates. If they had an extremely good chance of receiving funding for their work and it was relatively easy to start a company for someone in his twenties, the entire nature of getting a job would change. You could essentially create your own job.
Such a move to create entrepreneurs on a massive scale among those under 30 is the best approach to revitalizing the Korean economy and bringing in new ideas and approaches on a massive scale. It is not the fault of professors that Korea is not producing the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates in great numbers. That state is the result of the impossibility of youth realizing their ideas.
Moreover, I have heard many explanations for the factors behind the “Korean Miracle” of the 1970s and 1980s, but oddly the issue of age is rarely mentioned. When Park Chung Hee took office in 1961, he was 44; when Nam Duck-woo became finance minister in 1969, he was 45. They hired many far younger than themselves.
Shifting the entire process of developing business and financing opportunities down to those in their 20s and 30s would have a tremendous impact on Korea’s economy. It would also bring new hope to graduates, in which they could play a direct and significant role in society.