[Outlook]Save the middle class
Another year is nearing its end. It was a year of expectations and frustrations, with hope and lamentation intermingling. We saw politics that prioritized aspirations in the legislative elections and politics that attempted to put values first in the candlelight vigils. The teenage generation marked a stark contrast to those in their 20s struggling to find jobs.
It feels like not much can be done to resolve the ongoing economic crisis. Residents who wanted a new town built in their neighborhood are filing lawsuits to get the decision canceled. The impulse for survival of the fittest pulls more strongly than the pursuit of values.
Teens now look like they’re doomed to the same future as the 20-somethings before them. Those in their 20s are vulnerable to yet another shock from the economic crisis.
The source of everyone’s problems is the economic crisis. The current meltdown is shaking up our society, and the middle class in particular is being affected. Statistics are showing that those in the middle rungs of the economic ladder are going through a crisis. According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the middle-income class made up 68 percent of the population in 1996, but that number dropped to 55 percent in 2006. According to a JoongAng Ilbo survey of public awareness and sentiment, before the financial crisis [of the late 1990s] nearly 70 percent felt they belonged to the middle class. Lately, only 57 percent do.
The shock from rapid globalization and intensified social polarization has led to this crisis. In the course of the shifting social geography, investment shrank and domestic consumption froze, the wealth gap between income classes expanded and people feel that the difference is even bigger than it actually is.
A more direct cause of all the economic trouble was the local impact of the U.S.-sparked financial crisis. The crisis is penetrating all sectors of our economy, from conglomerates to small and midsize companies to the self-employed. As a result, our society is facing growing problems. The suicide rate is on the rise, along with crime, and people feel more deprived than before. The people feel as if they have no hope for the future.
Korea is not alone when it comes to the crisis of the middle class. In the United States, one of President-elect Barack Obama’s most important policies is aimed at rescuing middle-income earners. Japan is working hard on a policy to respond to the collapse of its middle class and the even more diminished status of the underprivileged. If such a collapse of the middle class can be called “Latin Americanization,” then the entire globe is on the verge of Latin Americanization. In Korea, the trend is getting serious.
In order to prevent the collapse of the middle class, realistic measures with due consideration for the structural conditions of our economy must be presented. Those measures must be implemented in a bipartisan manner, without unnecessary debates over whether they are right- or left-wing. The biggest difficulties imposed on the middle class are about job insecurity, education, housing, retirement benefits and health. The creation of jobs and job security are the most urgent tasks.
To do so, we must simultaneously pursue the right wingers’ drive to find a new growth engine and left wingers’ goal of distributing new jobs to the broader public. Leftists must pay attention to the fact that even if growth without employment goes on in the era of globalization, developing new growth engines and improving industrial structures are job-creation strategies.
The rightists must listen to the leftists’ strategies on distributing jobs and cutting working hours, because a growth-oriented policy alone can’t create new jobs or guarantee job security.
While the restoration of the middle class is a task for the entire nation, one of the most important jobs for our society is to abandon the old-fashioned left and right dichotomy and to use our imagination to integrate the people. A political truce among major participants - the administration, companies and civil society - is needed now.
Statistics are showing that those in the middle rungs of the economic ladder are going through a crisis.
The writer is a professor of sociology at Yonsei University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
oneby Kim Ho-ki