youth part 1

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Still working…



Haejoang Cho

1. Introduction: Story of the Temporary Autonomous Zone created by South Korean Youth

I start this paper on a rather personal note. After experiencing the IMF financial crisis in 1997, I received a shock—a shock that was greater for having personally witnessed both the collapse of the South Korean military dictatorship at the hands of its citizens, and the growing popularity of the South Korean feminist movement. Being relatively ignorant of issues of political-economy, I had believed that if one tried hard enough, life in South Korean society would become progressively more rational and improve. Until the IMF Crisis, I had also made it a point to avoid all government commitments, disapproving of its activities. However, with the country on the verge of collapse, I suddenly changed my mind and agreed to serve on many of its committees. Not only did I become active in the City of Seoul to address unemployment for youth and women, I also became active in formulating youth policy at the Ministry of Culture and Tourism.
After the collapse of the military dictatorship, the first civilian government of Kim Young-sam (1992-1997) emphasized globalization and informatization while the Kim Dae-jung administration (1997-2002) pursued the informatization of South Korean society, under the banner of “knowledge-based society.” From the mid-1990s, I also started diverting the energy that I had been pouring into the feminist movement into youth, declaring that they needed to take ownership as citizens of the small batch production of post-Fordism. Contrary to the prevalent youth policies emphasizing “protection,” I declared that the South Korean college entrance exam needed to be reformed in order to empower/cultivate the voluntary activities of youth.
While I was emphasizing the need for an autonomous zone where the youth could experience various things to their fullest, the City of Seoul abruptly decided to provide me with a building and funds to carry out these ideas so I opened the Haja Center in 1999. The period that Jesook Song addresses in her book, South Koreans in Debt Crisis (2009), is when I started engaging in this type of acitivty. As she accurately states in her book, I was one of the “crisis knowledge brokers” at the time. While her research shows how these brokers, responsible for formulating the government’s policies, were creating the “governable subjects” of the neoliberal welfare state, I was empowering youth as subjects of cultural and small-batch production system of post-Fordism. With the GNP plummeting from $10,000 to $6,500 and families and neighbors being driven out into the streets with mass unemployment, the government and civil society, each in their ways, tried to respond to this state of emergency, as did youth who actively tried to create their own field of practice and agency.
At Haja Center, those who wanted to become film directors but weren’t allowed to hold cameras in their schools gathered, along with those who wanted to be in rock bands and those who wanted to be designers. During this period, in order to create this center, I visited various youth centers around the world. However, I met few youth with such desires as strong as those youth at Haja. Other than the International Film School in Moscow, I felt this level of energy only in a few places in northern Europe and United States, catering mostly to youth in really dire straits. In video, web, popular music, design, and popular cultural criticism workshops, youth who had a burning desire to say and do something gathered. These youth were intent on doing things that no one had forced them to do. Looking back, their activities were what Maurizio Lazzarato has called “immaterial labor”—a term that he has coined in trying to track the transformations in labor by the working class in the post-Fordist era[1]. According to Lazzarato,

The concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor. On the one hand, as regards the ‘informational content’ of the commodity, it refers directly to the changes taking place in worker’s labor processes in big companies in the industrial and tertiary sectore, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernatics and computer control. On the other hand, as regard the activity that produces the ‘cultural content’ of the commodity, immaterial labor involves a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work’- in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and more, strategically, public opinion.

In his book, Lazzarato comments on how “culture,” which used to denote the position of the bourgeois class, comes to take on a productive character with the transition to full-blown consumerism and post-Fordism. Viewing the 1970s as the period of “great transformation” in labor, Lazzarato comments on how this system of “mass intellectuality” allows anyone with ability, regardless of their class background, to participate in the production of culture, narrowing the gap between labor and creativity and author and reader. In this new stage of labor, he states, “Workers are expected to become ‘active subject’ in the coordination of the various functions of production, instead of being subjected to it as simple command.” He further asserts, “We arrive at a point where a collective learning process becomes the heart of productivity, because it is no longer a matter of finding different ways of composing or organizing already existing job functions, but of looking for new ways” (2007:2).
In fact, my objective at Haja Center was to create youth who could be public intellectuals as well as leaders of the culture and creative industries in the society of flexible labor and information. At Haja Production School, through creative writing workshops, we produced not only youth critics in their 10s who engaged in social criticism, we also produced youth who organized relay concerts to oppose the war in Iraq. The youth at Haja Center also engaged in online demonstrations to promote freedom of expression for middle- and highschool students, especially in terms of their hairstyles, as well as successfully hold protests to lower the voting age from 20 to 19. These activities had the inadvertent effect of diminishing the authority of existing public schools.
In the 1990s, youth who had dropped out of schools went around wearing hip-hop pants that looked like they had crapped in them, colored their hair, and had body piercings to express their individuality and stand out in the crowd. They also hung out in bars, “cola-techs,” and Internet cafes. As organizers of fan clubs for their favorite singers and drama stars, they also became a powerful cultural and economic force. In the process, terms such as “new generation,” I-generation,” and “N-generation” became attached to them. In front of Miliore and Myung-dong shopping malls, stages were erected where these youth with talent performed, attracting large audiences. Students also appeared who spent all night on the Internet then slept in the classroom. With teachers unable to control their classrooms, the media started describing a “classroom collapse” in South Korean society and movements to reform the education system appeared.
Many youth ran away from their homes, either temporarily or permanently, because they had fights and disagreements with their parents. Parents unhappy with public schooling either escaped abroad with their children through early study-abroad education or formed alternative schools. It was by and large a period when politics of identity and politics of culture were effectively practiced by and for youth. Believing that this “temporary autonomous zone” would soon become an “alternative public culture,” I used terms such as “creative commons” and “agora” to describe such phenomena as well as write papers on such related phenomena such as the Internet boom, the World Cup street festivals, and the Korean Wave. Using the name of “Seotaeji,” a popular singer among youth who had dropped out of highschool to pursue his singing career, I also called them the “Seotaeji Generation.”
I expected the youthful energy of activities to soon seep into broader society and bring forth great change. I thought that alternative schools would continue to spread bringing forth change in the formal education system. However, less than 10 years after the beginning of these phenomena, middle- and highschool students have quietly returned to their homes and schools and the streets have become deserted. At Haja Center as well, youth who had little desire to do anything also started coming. Meetings were called to discuss the issue of “cool” seniors not accepting the greetings of these newcomers, with the latter calling the behavior of the former “disappointing” and “inhumane.” That is, students who considered warm greetings among the students to be their most important value started coming to the alternative schools.
The media and government continued to talk about the need to cultivate self-enterprising youth who could lead the creative and culture industries. However, the youth started returning to the world of college entrance exams, very far from the work of immaterial labor, making it difficult to find self-enterprising and creative youth. Instead, youth started crowding institutes that prepped highschool students for college entrance exams, and seminars held by these institutes attracted hordes of mothers.
In this paper, I discuss the South Korean youth of the 1990s, who have abruptly gone back to their homes and schools after being immersed in a world of immaterial labor. I also discuss the collective subjectivites, sociality, and forms of society created by these creative youth through their labor in the 1990s; the recent subjects of the neoliberal era who are, in contrast, quickly and continuously engaging in the intensive labor of “studying”; and the implications of these phenomena in relation to the rapid development of global capitalism. Through analyzing the transition from the so-called “Seotaeji Generation” to the “post-Seotaeji Generation” and from the “New” to the “Neoliberal” Generations, I wish to consider the issues that we can raise in relation to global capitalism, immaterial labor, and youth. Finally, using cases from a marginal non-Western country that has undergone compressed modernization, I wish to discuss the importance of analyzing the spheres of education and family.

2. The Sudden Transformation of Colleges from Creative Commons to a Market Place

The issue of immaterial labor seems to be primarily discussed in the West in relation to the world of work. However, I, who has spent most of my time working in a university observing youth, wish to discuss it in relation to college students before they enter this world. As it is well known, South Korea is a country with a high education “fever,” with some attributing the country’s rapid economic growth to this “fever.” According to a survey in 2009, South Korea has the second highest percentage of people with university degrees among the OECD countries. Among citizens between the ages of 25-34, more than 56% have attended schools beyond technical colleges and more than 80% of highschool graduates are in college. The percentage of those entering graduate school is also steadily rising. Moreover, the South Korean education system is infamous for its college entrance exam “war” in the competition to enter the country’s top universities.
For those college students who have fulfilled the goal of college entrance exams, college symbolized “freedom” itself. Exercising their freedom in college to the same degree that they had suffered in highschool, they attempted to compensate themselves for the “lost time” in highschool. In order to relax those bodies that had become rigid engaging in the mechanical labor of studying for college, they hung out in clubs and bars, as well as drink all night, talking art and politics. In fact, until the 1980s, college students were considered the “chosen” elite within South Korean society. While those students in the 1960s and 70s were entrusted with the task of making the country rich, those in the 1980s were entrusted with braving the guns of military dictatorship to fight for democracy, while those in the 1990s were entrusted with leading the culture industry and informatization of South Korean society.

2-1) The New Generation of the Year of ’90

Around the period that youth was bringing down the military dictatorship in 1987 through their student movement and successfully hosting the Seoul Olympics, they were also becoming “individual” subjects in pursuing the “democratization” of everyday life and in entering the “consumer society.” Advocating freedom and individuality, self-expression and self-development, this generation criticized the older generation for being too collectivist and too preoccupied with economic production. They, themselves, began immersing themselves in forms of immaterial labor as early adaptors in the online world that started opening up in the information society. This generation played all night in the online bulletin boards and portals as online experts and cultural critics. In online “rooms of their own,” they also engaged in acts of “cultural production” as a form of “self-expression.” They were busy not only in promoting their favorite singers and stars but also in creating a new world through engaging in free informational, networking, creative, cultural, and affective labor.
Around 1995, when the country’s GNP hit the $10,000 mark, college students began traveling around the world to make friends and recreate their bodies as global cultural citizens. Without a second thought, they took time off to travel to places like Europe, India, and Thailand. It was also around this time that one started seeing female students carrying around bottles of Evian on Seoul campuses. Rock bands also started flourishing with some bands making it big in the mainstream as well. While some youth who were interested in becoming film directors organized indie-film festivals (with Juno, the internationally-acclaimed director of “Bong!,” being the first part of this generation), many others, with a sense of “public service,” attached subtitles to Japanese or American dramas so that others could also enjoy them. Still others published on and offline magazines on diverse topics.
Of course, the IMF Crisis in 1997 came as a big shock to these college students. Some students had to cut their education abroad short and come back to South Korea. Others found it difficult to go backpacking around the world with earnings from their part-time jobs. However, this economic crisis was not enough to cool the ardor of those youth who had their first taste of immaterial labor. On the contrary, some became even more driven to succeed. Others, meanwhile, became more interested in “money.” The energy of both groups became apparent both in Internet venture companies and in popular culture. While the state and media actively encouraged these youth, stating that they could become a director like Steven Spielberg an earn a lot of money for South Korea, corporation began holding competitions like the “LG Global Challenge” in order to cultivate a new workforce with cultural capital. Linking their labor to notions of “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” “Creative Commons,” and “Alternative Public Culture,” I became an activist-scholar interested in creating an autonomous zone where these youth could immerse themselves in creative, communicative, and affective labor.
Actually, there doesn’t seem to be much need to further elaborate on their activity. Their activity had much in common with the hippie and anti-war movements in the United States or Europe in the 1960s. One can also find commonalities with the 1968 Riot in France and the activities of youth on the streets of Shinjuku in Japan. The phenomenon of rock bands, Woodstocks, fashion, punk, hiphop, techno parties, pirate broadcasting, squatting, and under- and indie cultural activities are all phenomenon that countries with advanced capitalist economies have experienced at some point in their modernity, usually in cities that had hosted Olympic games after they have reached a GNP of over $5,000. On television, one can see almost the exact same phenomenon occurring in China with their youth transforming their bodies into those of the “New Generation,” in the process starting a “pop culture” boom. Even though all youth around the world have created energy through their immaterial labor that, at one point, shook up the world, this happened in a concentrated manner in South Korea in the 1990s. Compared to the more advanced countries, the South Korean youth engaged in quick and powerful bursts of this energy within a compressed period of time. As early adapters in the technological environment that opened up through PC-communications and the Interent, they were also able to greatly magnify their power as users.
The immaterial labor that the South Korean youth began to engage in the 1990s with the blessing of the South Korean state and corporations began to show tangible results after 2000. Among the “miraculous” events that began to take place in the beginning of 2000 in the political arena was the movement to create a “blacklist” of corrupt politicians during the national parliamentary election; the sharing of knowledge and wisdom between ordinary people through the “Naver Intellectual”; and the media activism of civic activists like the journalists who worked for Ohmynews. In the arena of popular culture, one can count the on and offline activities of fans to promote their favorite musicians or drama stars that not only vitalized the popular culture industry but also promoted the Korean Wave that swept across Asia around 2002. These youth not only celebrated their bodies and tastes and preferences, creating energy through their immaterial labor that extended to the holding of street festivals during the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup, they also miraculously got elected Roh Moo Hyun, an activist lawyer turned politician, who had little chance of winning, through their cell phones and PC-communications. From the 2002 World Cup celebrations that showed the possibility of mass gatherings without any top-down organization, and the politicizing of the deaths of two young girls hit by an American army truck, to the candlelight protests to oppose the import of American beef, these youth began to express new forms of popular/democratic activism. Their online activites also began to show tangible results in the marketplace, with 30,000 youth gathering simultaneously in the Lineage online game in 2001, and one third of the Korean population registering for the mini hompy Cyworld in 2003. These activities also formed the basis of youth activism discussed earlier. Cyworld was the creation of two college students who wanted to create a better world and is basically similar in design to the social networking site, Face Book, which has also taken United States by storm.
At this point, let’s consider the subjectivities, forms of life, and sociality created by these youth through their immaterial labor. First of all, the youth in the 1990s pursued and expressed their own form of individuality. Trying to express themselves as beings of desire, they pursued horizontal rather than vertical relationships. Accordingly, given time, they possessed a tremendous ability to communicate their personal visions and were highly self-reflexive. Many also read this generation in relation to hypertext. Not particularly close to the older generation, they engaged in many forms of experimentation in cyberspace. Unlike the anti-establishment cultural revolutions conducted by youth in United States and Europe between 1950-70, the South Korean youth were able to engage in a social revolution without ruffling the feathers of the older generation because of the online space of the Internet. Through this online space, they were able to communicate their interests, share feelings and information, and even create “cyber families.” Like members of rock bands, they were able to escape the control of their families and schools and create a society of their own within which they could pursue and experiment with their own ideals. During this process, outstanding artistic figures like Seotaeji could emerge along with a long list of popular hits in the Korean Wave. Among these youth, many considered their parents to be objects of authority against whom to rebel; many lived in student dormitories; and many used the campuses, streets, and clubs to gather. Many who lived in the era of culture, venture businesses, and social and cultural experimentation also had the adjective “cool” affixed to them. At one point, it appeared as if they could open a bright and hopeful new world.
However, that is not how things were to turn out. From 2005, these youth who had been engaging in immaterial labor began to encounter extreme difficulties. Among these youth who had been surviving through their wit and creativity, some managed to enter companies and secure stable lives for themselves as they approached their 30s. For others, life became a struggle to eat and survive. In fact, until 2004 and 2005, under the slogan of “a laggard in industrialization but a fore-runner in the information age,” South Korea was among the top five countries in the world in terms of its Internet infrastructure, conducting many extraordinary experiments with the mass participation of its young citizens in the Internet. Services like Facebook and Twitter that are currently popular in United States were already popular in South Korea with Cyworld in the beginning of 2000 and M2Day in 2007. However, with the exception of the South Korean online gaming industry, which was the first online experimental industry in the world, and which was extremely popular among the Korean netizens, there are no Korean companies as of yet that have garnered global success. Moreover, with the market soon taking over everything, the number of people engaging in immaterial labor has radically diminished and youth who began to engage in “money investing” began to appear. This latter phenomenon can be linked to the changes around 2007 when over 20-million people—half the population—began to invest in mutual funds. Among the only Internet sites to continue to engage in creative and cultural activity while surviving was DC Inside. Creating such terms as “jjiljili” (losers), “mu-gae-nyum” (people without a sense of judgment), “ing-yu-jil” (useless things), “re-al” (a mistpronunciation of “real” to exclude those who actually say “real”), the users of this site created and circulated their own exclusive and satirical terms.
To summarize, between 2002-2004, around the period of World Cup street festivals and the Korean Wave, the energy of youth dramatically fell. While the market absorbed the personnel and resources accumulated through immaterial labor, a similar sphere did not open up in the public sector. Around this time, with large portals engaging in a cutthroat war amongst themselves, we began to see large mergers, takeovers, and headhunting practices, and the entire Internet sphere became awash with money. In order to protect Internet marketing practices, it became further subjected to state regulations and government surveillance, further shrinking the sphere of activity for immaterial labor (on this point, refer to my and Lessig’s essays). With the youth, who had been enlarging the spheres of democratization and popular culture through their own forms of personal development, becoming absorbed into the world of money and coming under the influence of market fundamentalism, things began to change dramatically. Among the changes, most serious is the diminuation of number of youth immersed in the world of immaterial labor despite the infusion of state and corporate capital. Now, let’s move on to examine the kind of labor and lives lived by college students from the class of 2000.

2-2) Children Living in the Unlimited Competition of Neoliberalism.

On Januarly 1, 2010, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper announced the appearance of the “G-Generation” that was “born around the ’88 Olympics, equipped with global competitiveness, and was bright and optimistic.” However the model of “G-Generation” that this newspaper had in mind, with no sense of cultural inferiority, diverse global experiences, and an outstanding sense of creativity and imagination, was a youth who had graduated from the most elite science highschool, had majored in economics or computer science, and was working, through a special military exemption, in a software development firm. It’s likely that the term “G-Generation,” being used in college ads, are people who belong to “0.1%” of the entire population. In contrast, with most youth having to live very unstable lives during a era of high youth unemployment, one economist labeled them the “880,000 won generation,” based their average monthly income. This is a generation that has experienced with their own bodies during the era of high youth unemployment and who are therefore obsessed with this issue.
From 2002, the students in my class told me that they felt as if I was pushing them off a cliff. They found my anthropology class where I told them that it was ok to go down a path less traveled disquieting. This is a generation less familiar with culture than survival. They told me how how they had, to a certain extent, enjoyed lives of competition during highschool, while going back and forth between their school and after-school institutes, through mottos such as, “If I don’t win, then I will be eaten up” and “If you can’t avoid it, then enjoy it.” Those in college tell me how they miss highschool when they could immerse themselves in one thing, and when they could be certain of the results that they could get compared to the amount of time and money that they invested in their study.
In entering college, these students who had enjoyed the certainty of “material labor” in highschool, entered another field of competition in trying to secure a stable job. They considered the travel and cultural experiments of their seniors to be a waste of time. One freshman stated how he had turned down an opportunity to go abroad after winning an essay competition in highschool due to the fear of interrupting and ruining his life trajectory. Going abroad to study a foreign language but not backpacking, these youth don’t invest in anything without clear and tangible results. Upon entering college, these students study English and manage their grades and, in preparing for the civil service exams, set their future goals and prepare for arduous labor. Until highschool their heavy labor was heavily self-directed. Writing down their life goals in their Franklin Diaries, they systematically accomplished their plans. If so, what kind of labor, subjectivity, and sociality do they have? Moreover, what is the neoliberal governance that compels these youth to engage in this type of arduous voluntary study? Based on the writings of students in my introduction to cultural anthropology class, we had many discussions of their study habits, their manager moms, and the institutes that they had attended in order to get into collge. Through such discussions, I was able to identify the following characteristics of this group.
First of all, these youth engage in forms of labor aimed mostly at risk-management and safety. Being used to studying for the college entrance exam, which has clear results proportional to the efforts, and which calmed their nerves, some developed an addiction to studying. This was not only because they learned the importance of studying from an early age but also because they had directly seen people around them suffer during the IMF Crisis. That’s why they also considered their older brothers and sisters trying to be cool to be somewhat immature. Through their mothers who were convinced that their children would live in a world harsher and more competitive than their own worlds, they had learnt to attend institutes at an early age. At these institutes, they “studied a step ahead,” learning things that would later be taught in their regular schools, thus getting perfect scores. Accordingly, a child from a poor family who could not afford to attend these institutes had to be either outstanding or have a will of iron in order to keep up with the classes.
This generation also naturally learnt the law of “winner takes all.” In their homework assignment asking them to write about their study habits, they wrote, “Studying is like running a marathon” and “If you don’t win, you die.” Like racehorses, which had to constantly compete, they thought of ways to making studying fun. They wrote about various techniques to motivate themselves, including purposely creating an object of competition, buying pretty accessories for studying at their institutes, wearing comfortable clothes to school, tracking down the names of famous institute instructors on the Internet and taking their classes, and engaging in romances to increase their will to study. If the older students merely endured, resigning themselves to studying as a hellish form of training, these students didn’t endure things so dumbly. For three years in highschool, they trained their bodies and engaged in tough competition to enter college, saying, “I compete, therefore I am”; to a certain extent, they even enjoyed this competition. Upon entering college, these students are engaging in a similar competition to getting a job.
Around the period that they entered college, the term “spec” started becoming popular. This was an acronym derived from the word “specifications” used to refer to computer features. In order for them to cultivate the high “specifications” required by employers, they spent their college years improving their “specs.” In 2009, one female student who had been preparing for entrance to law school while managing three majors died from overwork. In some way, this death was entirely predictable. Students are also becoming more clever, getting information from their peers of classes with professors who are generous with grades, as well as making plans to study English and prepare for a job when they go to the military so they don’t waste any time. The number of people who went to the army and who met people from all classes and backgrounds and had diverse experiences has dramatically shrunk. Basically, engaging in immaterial labor is considered a waste of time, and anything that is a waste of time is to be avoided. Of course, within a certain class of society, where students have the “financial power of their grandfather, the informational power of their mothers, and their own stamina,” they can engage in a different type of labor, but these students are likely to be the “mother’s friend’s son” (um-chin-a). To these students, the “um-chin-a” is a figure that they can never aspire to being. To these students who live in a harsh world, issues of social distinction are more sensitive even if they don’t come out to directly talk about “class.”
Secondly, to talk about the specificities of their relations and subjectivites, the female students speak of having wanted to grow up as “children who were sufficiently pretty and smart.” The goal of male students was to have normal lives without worrying about money and owning their own homes. Accordingly, among this generation, being a civil servant and teacher have emerged as popular occupations. Compared to the previous generations, these students tend to be more family-centered and closer to their mothers in particular. In response to the question of who was their best or only friend, many replied, “my mother.” They talked about how grateful they were to their mothers in their supporting role for gathering information for college entrances, feeding them, and in picking them up, within a society that was becoming harsher and more competitive. That is, the number of students who disliked their manager-moms was decreasing with most students expressing gratitude instead. Especially since many knew how much their parents were investing in their institute fees, they were either grateful or felt sorry [2]. They felt sorry knowing how their parents could be a little more comfortable in their old age with that money and because they did not know when they could repay that debt. Knowing that their parents possessed more resources than themselves, they also knew that they needed to maintain good relations with them. They thus engaged in very different relations with their parents compared to the previous generation of students who had been rebellious. They also talked lightly of their brief moments of rebellion during middle school. They disliked leaving home and being told to “find things that they want to do” or to be “creative.” More than anything, being safe was the most important thing. Having grown up under the management of their mothers or the guidance of their teachers, they didn’t have very close friends or seniors. As such, they discussed most things with their parents. With stories of children calling their mothers after they became judges, before they handed down a ruling, this kind of phenomenon became increasingly seen as a social problem.
This is a generation that has been raised by mothers who have more faith in their own management skills than the education policies of the government, and who wield information as a form of capital. Just as independent singers disappeared with the appearance of “idol stars,” formed through the systematic training of their parents and managers, so students, who have received the management of their parents and institutes, have started to enter top colleges. Of course, they don’t waste any time exploring things. Avoiding “immaterial labor” where the results are not always commensurate to the effort, they engage in endless effort like race horses to compete with similar teams. They forego sleep, skip meals to lose weight, and have cosmetic surgery to compete. With not only children training to become pop stars but most children engaging in this type of training, youth are living lives far removed from the world of “immaterial labor.” For this generation who has chosen their “neoliberal instrumental mothers” above their friends, they naturally grow disconnected from their seniors. Among the minority of college students trying to escape the bridles of such parental control, there is a popular saying, “Your mother must love this,” meaning that their mothers are likely to disapprove of them forming groups to go on cheap vacations together. One can thus once again see the mothers operating as a “Super Ego.” Third, the forms of sociality that these youth engage in are one of simply being “alone.” They have little experience of working with others. With a strong mindset that they have to do everything by themselves and be responsible for everything alone, they don’t have much experience communicating or interacting with others for a common goal. Even though they may want to take care of and communicate with someone else, they are afraid because of their lack of experience. Accordingly, they spend most of their time locked in their rooms with their computers studying and doing other things. Even though many college students study for the civil service exam upon entering college because it guarantees them a stable job, it’s also because it’s a form of labor where they can do diligently alone. In the book, A Quiet Revolution: Imagination of Youth in their 20s, written by myself and the author of the 880,000 Won Generation, one junior student, Suh Myung Sung writes, “the people in my generation have the fantasy that they will some day become perfect beings if they work diligently in their rooms alone” (2009:237). He writes that “the various technological gadgets and media have dulled the senses” of this generation that has grown up in a consumer society, and that “even their unique calling in life—engaging in study to write a good college entrance exam—has been solved through consumption.” However, he adds that it was possible for this generation to “not even have the opportunity nor the desire to try new things,” both because of parents “who had set up most things at an early age to compete in this world” (238), and because of the financial power of these parents in the 1990s. With the sudden collapse of their parents’ financial power, many of these students’ dreams have also turned to dust.
This experience of being reduced to nothing produced an extreme sense of isolation, anxiety, and self-doubt where they felt that they had to face the world alone. Myung Sun writes about the experience of trying to and failing to engage in activities with the student association with others who did not trust themselves, never mind others. In some sense, being alone is the most comfortable state of being for these youth who have grown up only competing. One student, who has begun to reflect on his experience, writes, “It will not be easy to rid one’s body of the poison of competition.” Myung Sun writes about how, as great as the desire for communication, “if one senses in the least that something is amiss and that the conversation with the other person will be difficult, then one quickly ends that relationship so that one doesn’t get hurt” (239). Male students have begun to appear, who have decided to give up on relationships after one or two failed relationships, because emotional labor is too difficult. Writing about the irony of his generation “indifferent to a 10% hike in the university tuition while making sure to use the point card to get a 10% discount on California rolls in the convenience store,” Myung Sun declares that if his generation continues to live such individualized lives without a greater sense of social responsibility, then it will be difficult for them to overcome the crisis in this era of “surplus” labor.
These youth declare that if their parents have money and they have large rooms where they can be alone, then they never want to leave home. However, there are still many cases of youth having to leave their homes and live alone. The number of youth who have to engage in long-term temporary work because of the rising college tuition and their poor family backgrounds is also increasing. The number of college students living precariously in one room student housing is also increasing. In the same book, Park Chae Yong writes of how the most likely home for his generation is not a “secure home” of their own but a “one room” student housing (2009: 192-198). If they have money, these students can rent a one-room or an officetel, an attic room or a basement or semi-basement room, or live in a “goshiwon” which becomes cramped with just one bed (193). In these rooms, “the students in their 20s live like hamsters on a treadmill.” Even though living in these rooms can give a brief feeling of freedom in being away from the oppressive atmosphere of one’s parents’ home, and in being able to experience the ability to be alone and to take responsibility as an adult, this kind of life is fundamentally like living on an isolated island. Living on an “isolated island,” one’s social network shrinks and one starts losing one’s confidence—they increasingly become like the “invisible man.” Stating that phenomenon of becoming a tribe of “one room” student dwellers might be a natural result of being children of parents with burning ambitions, who had accomplished the dream of the never-ending real-estate boom, Chae Yong states that the youth in their 20s need to pose questions about this life and start forming coalitions. That is, they need to think about the right to residence guaranteed in the Constitution, as well as imagine the kind of lives that his and the next generation, who will live as single households, will have to live, and to start living together.
Looking at the changes among the college students in the past 30 years, I also see a picture of the South Korean society that has rapidly transitioned from an independent modern nation and a Keynesian-style, late-developmentalist state, to, now, a neoliberal state in a state of emergency. South Korea is said to be the only country among the OECD countries to have experienced colonialism and rapid economic growth. As such, it is likely to have its own special characteristics. However, in looking at the lives of this generation living in one room student housing, I see the Hikimoris and the “NEET” tribe in Japan. What might be the reason for Japan that always felt so far away to now feel so close? Now appears to be the time to raise some issues with regard to “immaterial labor and youth,” based on youth experiecence during the recent history of neoliberal turn of South Korea.

3. discussion: from Neoliberal Politics to post capitalist Politics

3-1. Manager Mom in Formation of Neoliberal Youth Subjectivity

3-2. Winners and Losers

3-3. The Politics of Otaku and Hikikomori inEast Asian Context

3-4 Post Capitalist Politics

[1] In fact, too busy with this type of “action research,” I haven’t had much time to keep up with theoretical discussions of these issues in the West. I wrote this paper only upon participating in the symposium, ““Youth and Imaginative Labor: East Asia and Beyond,” organized by David Slater at Sophia University in Japan.

[2] South Korea is currently the country with the lowest expenditure on public education and the highest expenditure in private education among the OECD countries. The participation of South Korean students with “burning” academic ambition in the private education market is 83.7% compared to 17.9 in U.S. and 45.1% in Japan.



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2010 02 27

 

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