[Outlook]Playing it safe

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[Outlook]Playing it safe

One of my friends asked me a question the other day. He said, “Where should we be heading -- to economic growth or the fair distribution of wealth?” He seemed quite serious. In fact, many are asking the very same question. According to a recent poll, the concerns most common among company workers regarding presidential pledges are achieving economic growth and resolving social polarization.
But the main issue of our time is no longer a choice between growth and the fair distribution of wealth. As the term “growth with unemployment” expresses, the time when growth automatically led to more employment is gone. Growth might easily increase poverty instead, these days. The same is true with fair distribution of wealth.
It is hard to say that the inflexible measures aimed at fair distribution of wealth will definitely resolve social polarization and improve the people’s overall well-being.
The burning issue of our time is, instead, stability.
Ten years have passed since the financial crisis. And we are exposed to more risk than ever in our lives.
In the past, if parents put their children through college, even if that meant they had to sell their rice paddies, the children were guaranteed to find decent jobs.
But now, even those who have studied abroad for several years find it hard to find stable jobs. In the past, once one found a job in a conglomerate, he or she thought of it as a life-time job. But now, workers at big companies are also afraid that they could be laid off at any moment.
There are several reasons why risk has increased.
First, globalization has affected the trend. When a company moves to China in search of cheaper labor, its workers in Korea are certain to lose their jobs.
Another reason is affluence in our society. People do not need to lower their standards to quickly find employment. They can wait awhile before settling down in jobs that they believe suit them well. This increases the number of jobless people.
Meanwhile, life offers more choices now than it used to. In the past, people were born, found jobs, married, raised their children and died. People had a more or less similar pattern and circle of life.
These days, we make a strategic choice at every phase of life. We make a choice between a single life and a married life, about the number of children we will have and whether we will remain married or divorce.
And this also increases risk in society. In the past, when a husband lost his job, his wife shared the burden. These days, a husband’s losing his job will ruin the bonds that unite his family. In such circumstances, a capability to respond well to risk is the key to a successful life. If one does not have assets or social networks to protect himself, he could fall into a pit at any time.
It is risk that oppresses our society. Many people want to get rid of risk. Because economic growth is an important factor in that, many want more economic growth.
So what about building a waterway across the Korean Peninsula? The people are not happy about it because the project will increase risk. A better education system contributes to decreasing risk so many are interested in reforms in education. And what about eliminating the college entrance examinations entirely? The people do not support the idea because it seems to not have much to do with easing risk. An old politician who ran for the presidency twice and lost has announced he will run again. The people know that his decision will only add to the risk in our society.
Risk must be shared by all of society’s members. For instance, small and midsized companies have more risk than conglomerates. To reduce risk, promising small and midsized companies must be separated from the rest and provided with funds through a financial institution. Decent local banks can take this job, but we haven’t established this system yet.
In order to give employment to jobless people, we need to estimate risk in individuals and create a network to share their burdens. Because families take less responsibility for their members than before, nonprofit organizations can perform this work efficiently.
And again, non-profit organizations in Korea are not strong enough yet.
The government’s duty is to foster organizations that will carry out these jobs and support them so as to help the people regain stability in their lives and become more courageous. The support rates of a leading contender in the presidential election seemed unchangeable only days ago, but now the rates are changing.
This shows how vulnerable our society is to risk.
I want to have a long conversation with friends about how risk can be divided and reduced in our society.

*The writer is a professor economics at Saitama University, Japan. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Woo Jong-won

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