[Viewpoint] The rage of the middle classThe definition of poor is ever broadening because of the complexities of modern life. The middle class self-describes itself as the “working poor,” “house poor,” “building poor” or “educated poor.” Despite the fact that they are fully employed, own homes or buildings and are educated, they feel financially strapped and uncomfortable in affording their lifestyle.
The working poor originally referred to people working hard yet earned at poverty levels. Bread earners on nonpermanent payrolls and common salary earners who cannot afford a house of their own also fit the description.
A corporate executive introduces himself as “house poor” despite owning a modest-sized apartment in a complex designated for reconstruction. He believed his post-retirement days would be secure because of the real estate investment.
He and four other family members live cramped in a small rented home on the outskirts of Seoul dreaming of comfortable days when they’ll profit from the apartment. But the home has become more of a nightmare than a dream house. The apartment does not sell while the rent of his current home rises sharply.
According to a 2010 census report, a quarter of people living in rented homes own a home of their own. To them, their own home is their last resort. They live uncomfortably for most of their lives to defend their house. But the value of a life’s work and one’s hopes is depreciating while rent prices are going up. Home sales are rare.
Homes no longer provide security. Some 2.8 million of 3.7 million baby-boom generation households won’t be able to afford their retirement years even with all of their bank savings and the value of their house combined.
The so-called real estate-poor are also growing. A building owner says the building stands on a pile of debt. If offices go empty for long, the owner goes bankrupt. Due to poor business, shops are closing and building owners are failing to find new renters and are struggling under their debt.
A good education also no longer provides a stable future. According to labor statistics, college graduates without jobs total 298,000.
But there are an extra 412,000 who, upon graduation, are studying to prepare for higher education and state or job exams that are not included in the official data. Many are entering graduate schools or doctorate programs, but job prospects are foggy even with higher academic degrees.
The adage “work hard and you will succeed” is now an old wives’ tale. The sense of helplessness and hopelessness of getting nowhere despite hard work evolves into frustration and anger. The feelings are not restricted to the young generation who spend much of their time on Twitter and other social networking platforms to release their anger.
The middle class are not howling, but nevertheless are boiling inside. An apartment owner shrugs at the news of new government real estate measures, sneering that there had always been measures but no improvement. Many in southern Seoul, home to much of the middle class, are turning to the liberal camp, frustrated with the conservative government.
A veteran entrepreneur recently said he had started to re-read Marx and Lenin texts. He was shocked by the scale and spread of the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York. He wanted to know if the spread of synchronized protests, or global anger, had been a phenomenon at the time when socialism swept through the world.
He also wanted to know how liberals then capitalized on the public rage to their advantage. When conspiracy theories and rumors run wild, there are forces that are quick to make use of the public anger. He believes that in our case they are pro-North Korean forces.
But hostile forces waiting for society to crack have always existed. They are not the problems. The real problem lies with the source feeding public rage. But the governing class is impotent, irresponsible and thoughtlessly trotting out unimpressive policies. That makes the middle class angrier.
To presidential candidate Park Geun-hye’s idea of introducing license exams for employment to ease the pressure to get a prestigious college degree, a parent of a college student became angered by such an insensitive, clueless proposal. “Do our kids need more exams? Just because she didn’t take exams to get to high places, she shouldn’t talk so irresponsibly.”
To the government proposal to increase funding for child care for infants under five, the public coolly responded to the extra burden to care for other people’s children.
Wise talk to a person in rage is like adding fuel to fire. Condescending policies will only fan the burning house. What the governing people should do first is to open their eyes, study the problems and sympathize when there is still time and a chance. Once the rage of the middle class explodes, there is no turning back.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
By Yang Sunny