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Work and Employment among the Middle Class in Korea

Hyunji Kwon (Seoul National University)

Moving toward a post-industrial economy, Korea has witnessed considerable changes in the occupational structure for the past two decades. One of the noticeable changes includes the rapid increase in professional occupations, alongside the expansion of the creative-knowledge industries. Among many, the rise in culture, art, and sports-related professionals interacts with the explosive growth in higher education and lifestyle changes suggesting the country's transformation into a consumer society. The share of professional employees in the culture, art, and sports sector explained only 0.7 percent of total employees in 2000 and increased to 1.8 percent in 2019. Considering many are freelancers in these professions, the ratio gets higher when it takes the working population instead of employees. In 2021, 2.7 percent of all workers, including non-wage earners, were engaged in this category.

One of the prominent features of this occupational category is the large segment of younger workers. In 2021, 65 percent of these professionals were under the age of 40. Contrastingly, 33.1 percent of workers in all occupations and 26.5 percent of all technicians /machine operators belonged to the same age group. In addition, 5.2 percent of the young population fell into a relatively small field of the cultural, artistic, and sports professions, the sixth-highest among the two-digit occupational categories. These numbers indicate that Korea's young middle class has been heavily involved in the new economy industries, particularly cultural industries, not only as consumers but producers (creators). Although these culture-related occupations attract highly educated, middle-class young people, these occupations tend to produce large-scale precarious professionals with the insecurity of employment, income, social safety, and long-term career prospects. This changing occupational structure across generations implies that the Korean middle-class should not be understood as a unidimensional entity. Economically insecure but culturally and socially abundant urban middle class are often found among younger people in Korea. The middle class of the younger generation has been diverging between new affluent workers (Savage et al. 2013) with upper-middle income and higher aspirations for their future careers and emerging service and cultural workers (Savage et al. 2013) with lower income and endurance in their professional careers.

This study focuses on this emerging diversity of Korea's young middle class focusing on the latter, emerging cultural workers using a year-long participatory observation of a performing art group and a small-scale survey of cultural workers administered in winter 2021 -2022 (N=150). The members of the performing art group and the survey respondents reported their multi-dimensional precarity in their work and life. At the same time, not a few demonstrated their flexible perseverance in pursuing their professional performity and identity while enduring economic precarity. This study explores professional creative workers' capability to cope with the multi-dimensional precarity to keep hoping and moving (Alacovska 2019; Miyazaki 2006). This study will demonstrate the emergence of economically precarious creative workers holding their middle-classness practicing hope of creative work.

Hyunji Kwon is a Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University, Seoul, Korea. Her research interests center around flexible employment arrangements, changes in organizational level employment relations, and their labor market outcomes, including gender inequality and increasing precarity in the new economy industries. In addition, based on Korea's NRF-funded multi-year research projects on 'globalizing actors' in complex and turbulent fields of transnational corporations, she recently produced a couple of publications on the emergence of strategic first-tier suppliers in apparel and electronics GVCs and its implications for labor compliance in Asia.

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