youth labor chohan
Overeducated and Underemployed: Youth, Labor, and Post-Capitalist Politics in Contemporary South Korea
On the cold day of January 29, 2011, news of a writer’s death brought shock and sorrow to the people of South Korea. Her name was Choe Go-Un, and she was only thirty-two years old when she died from starvation and illness in her unheated one-room apartment. A note she had left on her neighbor’s door read: “Thank you for your kindness, as always. Shameful to say this, but I haven’t eaten for several days. If you have any leftover kimchi or cooked rice, please knock at my door.”[i] She was talented, and had received an award for her first short film Passionate Sonata at the 2006 Asian Short Film Festival. At the time of her death, she was working on several other scripts. Choe Go-Un was a paradigmatic figure of her generation: she was dedicated to her work, underemployed and overworked. The fact that highly motivated young people are begging for food is symptomatic of the ironies and cruel social costs accrued by the violently compressed process of modernization in South Korea. By contrasting two generations of young people?the “New Generation” that entered college during the 1990s and the “Spec Generation” that started college during the 2000s, I examine how young people responded to their shifting place in the labor market after the downfall of the military dictatorship in 1987 and in the aftermath of the financial crisis a decade later. Through analyzing these two generations’ changing attitudes about work, I argue that neoliberal reforms were quickly and seamlessly implemented in South Korea because they successfully harnessed the vitality, passion, and creativity of youth on the one hand and the fear of the family on the other. However, this hyper-neoliberal transformation that came about so suddenly and violently leads to post-capitalistic politics, in which young laborer-citizens find themselves in the crisis of bio-social reproduction.
Let me begin this essay with a sketch of the political scene and a story from my own research. After overthrowing a military dictatorship in 1987, the South Korean people?women and men, young and old, rich and poor?were brimming with hopes and expectations for a democratic and affluent society. Political liberalization and radical social reform took place through both top-down efforts by the state and bottom-up efforts by diverse groups of civil society.[ii] It was also a period when underrepresented groups began claiming recognition for their alternative identities. Among the most visible and powerful signs of “cultural liberalization” were the rebellious actions of teenagers. High school students, who felt like they were being held hostage in an authoritarian education system, used all forms of subversive and creative tactics to fiercely resist the establishment. Social commentators coined terms such as the New Generation, Generation I(ndividual), and Generation N(et) to describe these young people. Refusing to follow social norms, these youth possessed a burning desire to express themselves through their appearance and cultural tastes. They stood out in baggy pants, dyed hair, and body piercings, and they hung out in clubs, “cola-teques,” and Internet cafes. They quickly became a powerful cultural and economic force by organizing fan clubs for their favorite pop singers and drama stars. They spent all night online and fell asleep in classrooms the following day. Teachers began losing control of their classrooms, a trend the media analyzed as “classroom collapse.” It seemed as if the infamous Korean education system that had disciplined children and teenagers into “hard-laborers” for the college entrance examination was finally about to collapse. Excited by the hopeful signs of educational reform, I began conducting research on high school dropouts during this time of radical change.
This research eventually led me to study alternative education and to launch an alternative youth center with full government support in 1999. I named it the Seoul Youth Factory for Alternative Culture, which was casually called the Haja Center. Haja means “Let’s do (what we want to do).” The Haja Center opened with five studios, namely in design, filmmaking, web content design, popular music, and humanities studies. The pursuit of these activities at the center entailed what Maurizio Lazzarato has called “immaterial labor,” or changing practices of labor including activities not traditionally considered “work.”[iii] The primary goal of the Haja Center was to promote the rights of youth as citizens by providing them with a space to express and realize their ideas. It was an unusual space for young people to pursue activities that they truly enjoyed and to produce their own cultural content. Diverse individuals such as teenage cultural critics, peace concert organizers, website designers, human and civil rights activists, and freedom fighters gathered and collaborated on various projects at the center. By doing “what one wants to do” (rather than “what one ought to do”), Haja provided a “space for a radical autonomy of the productive synergies of immaterial labor”[iv] in a networked and digitized media environment. In a way, the young people at the center engaged in a “silent revolution” involving the redefinition of school, study, labor, and life.
Until recently, I firmly believed that these alternative activities would spread their influence into the formal education system, and that this “temporary autonomous zone” would soon blossom into its own “alternative public culture.” While Lazzarato views the 1970s as the point at which Western society experienced its “great transformation” to post-Fordism,[v] in South Korea, it was during the 1990s that discourses of post-Fordism and an “information society” emerged hand in hand with the rise of youth power.[vi] However, less than twenty years after the beginning of this cultural liberalization movement, middle and high school students have quietly returned to the traditional folds of their parents and schools, from which their seniors tried so hard to get away. Streets that once overflowed with rowdy teenagers are noticeably emptier. Although the media and government still continue to talk about the creative and self-enterprising youth, the young people themselves have returned to their former roles as filial sons and daughters to resume the relentless grind of study, cram schools, and preparation for the college entrance examination.
Why and how have the South Korean youth of the 2000s returned to the world of tedious and industrious labor? Was this sudden change a response to the growing dependence of the South Korean economy on global capital? While global capitalism has absorbed a small segment of the youth population as generously compensated global elites, the vast majority of young people were pushed to the margins of the globalizing and neoliberalizing South Korean economy. Young people who once pursued various immaterial activities with a passion and intensity in the 1990s sank into the ranks of the working poor, while the population of ‘risk averse’ neoliberal youth emerged as the new subjects of the new era. I discovered that the family, especially mothers who dread their children’s fall from middle class status, has played a pivotal role in this sudden transformation. I also realized that the rapid privatization of the education sector?in response to the increasingly debilitating fear parents experienced?was equally responsible for this shift. Despite the sharp contrasts between the youth culture of the 1990s and that of the 2000s, however, the young people of these two generations share one existential condition: they are overeducated, underemployed, and overworked. In what follows, I will show how the fear that has overwhelmed young people and their parents has made young people and their parents complicit in facilitating the transition into a neoliberal society built on a flexible and precarious labor regime. What I am ultimately interested in here is whether these youth, the ‘subalterns’ of late modernity, can speak. Will they face the reality that they have no sustainable future ahead of them? Will they be able to articulate a viable politics and become active agents with ‘existential clarity and courage,’ capable of saying no to the system?[vii]
[i] Jeon Sehwa, “Choe Go-Un, Dying Young from Poverty,” Hankook Daily, February 8, 2011.
[ii] While the first civilian government of Kim Young-Sam (1992-1997) emphasized ‘internationalization’, the Kim Dae-Jung administration (1997-2002) pushed for more social reforms under the banners of “People’s Government” and “Knowledge-based Society.”
[iii] Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labor.” In Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics. Edited by Michael Hardt and Paolo Virno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (1996), p. 133-151. According to Lazzarato, the concept of immaterial labor refers to two different aspects of labor. “On the one hand, as it 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 sector, where the skills involved in direct labor are increasingly skills involving cybernetics. On the other hand, as it regards 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.”
[iv] Lazzarato, “Immaterial Labor,” p. 141.
[v] Ibid. p. 133.
[vi] Post-Fordism refers to the dominant system of economic production, consumption, and associated socio-economic phenomena in most industrialized countries since the late twentieth century. It is contrasted with Fordism, the system formulated in Henry Ford's automotive factories, in which workers work on a production line, performing specialized tasks repetitive. See David Harvey’s The Condition of Post-modernity. London: Basil Blackwell (1989).
[vii] Barbara Ehrenrich. Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America. New York: Henry Holt and Company (2000).
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