Stress-free zones for South Korea's young people

Youths at a youth centre run by the Seoul city government on Dec 1, 2016. ST PHOTO: CHANG MAY CHOON
Youths at a youth centre run by the Seoul city government on Dec 1, 2016.

SEOUL - Smack in the middle of an industrial building in Seoul is a cosy, warmly-lit room for young people to hang out freely.

Sales manager Kim Nam Hee, who works nearby, drops by every day after lunch with her colleagues. They would plonk themselves on a sofa and chat away.

Across the room, 29-year-old website developer Choi Min Young is perched over his laptop, deep in thought. He comes in every morning, using the space as his office.

On a Friday, around noon, I also see people reading books, tucking into their lunch boxes, and simply napping in a corner. The mood is casual and relaxed, and laughter can be heard from time to time.

This may sound like an ideal office lounge, but it is actually a youth centre run by the Seoul city government. It was launched last year as part of broader plans to provide more social welfare for young people living in the capital.

"We named it Zero Gravity Zone because we want the people who come here to feel free from forces that pull them down, like stiff competition and pressure getting a job or a loan," said Mr Ethan Lim, manager of the centre located in an industrial building in south-western Gasan-dong.

" It's a space where they can relax and pursue their dreams."

Recognising the fact that young people face a lot of hardship getting into university and finding jobs, especially with youth unemployment rate hovering around 10 per cent, Seoul has pursued a youth policy focused on providing more welfare benefits for young people and easing their burden.

The 2020 Seoul Youth Guarantee programme was launched last year with a budget of 713.6 billion won committed to creating jobs for young people, offering them unemployment subsidies and housing allowances, and setting up social spaces for them to engage in various activities.

The European Union has a similar Youth Guarantee plan launched in 2013, to provide financial support to young people in its member states to get back to work or into education, and to improve their skills.

The Seoul programme, while welcomed by those who need it, has drawn flak from critics who decried it as as populist move that does not address the root of the problem of youth unemployment.

Seoul mayor Park Won Soon, in a speech late last year, defended the plan and urged "all organisations and generations to come together to address the difficult reality in which our youths and citizens are living".

Youth centres, for one, aim to provide a better quality of life for young people, said Mr Lim.

He added that they organise gathering, workshops and talks to engage young people and encourage them to think out of the box, instead of blindly following the rat race.

"We invite people to come share their stories, like there was one guy who quit his long-time job at a finance company to move to the rural areas to start his own book publishing cooperative. Not many people can think out of the box. Our goal is to convert them and show them how to think differently. That is the beginning of change," he said.

There are now two such centres open in south-western Seoul - in Gasan-dong and Daebang-dong - and each draws about 100 visitors a day, mostly people in their late 20s and 30s.

Six more will be built by the year 2020, each with a different target audience, said Mr Lim. He added that other cities, including Daegu and Busan, are also considering starting their own youth zones.

The Gasan-dong branch, which operates with an annual budget of 340 million won, caters to freelancers and people working in small companies in the area, giving them a space to hang out and meet other people in between work hours.

Ms Kim, who discovered the place a year ago, visits every day with two to three colleagues. "Our office is just next door but we don't have a place like this to relax in. We like it here because it's comfortable and quiet," she said.

Another regular is Mr Choi, who is involved in a small startup to design an online learning website with a friend. "We don't have an office yet, so we just work from here. What I like most about this place is that there are no restrictions. We are free to talk loudly or eat our food, and we can even sleep if we feel tired," he said.

When I visited the place, I counted 10 people resting in the two nap zones. Pillows and blankets are thoughtfully provided, and the heated floor in one nap zone is especially popular when the weather gets cold. There is also a shared kitchen with coffee makers and pots for cooking, and a small library well stocked with donated books.

Similar facilities are found at the Daebang-dong centre, which occupies a bright orange structure made from 14 containers. It sits on a small plot of empty government land next to Daebang subway station.

This centre caters to students mugging for exams. It is located near to Noryangjin Gosichon (exam village in Korean), an area packed with private academies to help students prepare for all kinds of exams, and mini-room accommodation known as gosiwon.

Ms Park Eun, 30, who moved from her southern hometown Changwon to Seoul in July last year to prepare for a civil service exam, goes to the centre to study three times a week. She stays at a nearby gosiwon.

"It's much more comfortable being here than in a cafe where we have to be worry about what other people think of us," she said.

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