When living in Korea, you often hear particularly younger people talk about Korea as Hell Joseon, (Joseon being the old name for Korea). Hell Joseon symbolizes the inhumane competition and pressure that many young people are facing during their school years and when searching for a job.

Aside from describing the difficulties in getting employment even after graduating from the best universities in the country, the term also covers the hardships that many of those, who do manage to find a job will face in the workplace due to Korea’s strict confucian culture. Young people and new graduates are often being underpaid, or even forced to work overtime with no overtime payment. I’ve heard several of my friends discuss the term “열정 페이” (yeoljeong pay, literally meaning “passion pay”), when describing how firms can underpay graduates and interns by using the “benefit of learning on the job” and “building your skills” as an excuse for the ridiculously low wage level. In other words: You should really just be happy to be here and willing to work for free, so stop whining!

This insane pressure of living in Hell Joseon has resulted in yet another satirical term, “the sampo generation” or in Korean 삼포세대 (sampo sedae). This is a slang expression for having given up on three important things in life: dating, marriage, and ever having children. Those who are really in despair define themselves as the “opo generation”, 오포세대, which means having given up on five things: the first three including employment and homeownership.

Korea still tops the ranks on suicide rates and general unhappiness, and there is no doubt that the new administration will be facing some heavy tasks in improving the living conditions for the Korean people. I personally find it promising that the new president Moon Jae In has vowed to focus more on the development of small and medium-sized firms. Korea needs a drastic change in it’s corporate culture, and it needs to come from the bottom.

Terms like Hell Joseon, sampo and opo sedae even appear in Korean popular culture from time to time. One example is Korean boy band BTS who sing about the sampo and opo generation in their song “Dope”. Listen for yourself, and turn on the subtitles in the video if you don’t understand Korean. The song is quite aggressive and critical of the living conditions and maybe just because of that it was instantly extremely popular. (The sampo and opo generation is mentioned around 2:14.)


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