Youths who live independently face poverty and isolation

Seongnam’s “Working School” uncovers the polarization of a generation

Narang | 기사입력 2022/05/10 [11:34]

Youths who live independently face poverty and isolation

Seongnam’s “Working School” uncovers the polarization of a generation

Narang | 입력 : 2022/05/10 [11:34]

When we hear that twentysomethings don’t live with their families, we usually assume they’ve moved out to go away to university or take a job in another city. But there are some young people who unavoidably end up living apart from their families, with little or no financial support from them. Their independence is not the kind that feels voluntary and excitingly free. It is unstable and lonely.


Over a three-month period starting in September of last year, the social cooperative “Working School”, based in Seongnam [a suburb south of Seoul], surveyed 250 “independently-living youth” about their lives and conducted in-depth interviews with 20 of them.


The survey team’s definition of “independently-living youths” are not those who still receive financial support from their families or who chose to live apart from them. They are “survival-type”, “eke-out-a-living-type” youths who had no choice but to move out due to instability and poverty in their family lives, and so have to take care of everything on their own.


Among the survey participants, 79.2% were between the ages of 19 and 29, 7.7% were under 19, and 13% were over 30. As a comparison, we also surveyed 60 “normal” youths who live outside of their family home.


▲ Data from the survey. 100,000 won = approx. 90 USD. ⓒWorking School


Unexpected independence leads to low satisfaction with life


Survey team member Park Gyeong-ran said, “Most of the independently-living youths that we met were in their teens or early twenties, they started their unstable independence a little earlier than others, and in many cases they chose to quit school and go to work in order to support themselves. Because of that, most of them have little schooling and are stuck working long hours in low-paying jobs. They’ve suffered hardships.”


Many moved out and began economic activities at a young age because of their parents’ divorce or death, family conflicts, or because their parents lost their jobs or otherwise became financially unstable.


Ms. Park said, “The survey shows that there is a big difference in life satisfaction depending on the reason for independence.” When the participants were asked about their levels of satisfaction with their current lives, the group who voluntarily moved out to live nearer to school or a job averaged a rating of 67.5 out of 100. On the other hand, those who had no choice but to move out due to financial difficulties or family strife rated their life satisfaction at an average of 58.7 – a clear difference of nine points.


Tteokbokki and ramen becomes staples... life without real food


One of the difficulties facing these youths is that of food. Lee Jeong-hyeon, the secretary-general of Working School, reported, “The survey shows that many of them can’t clearly say when and what they eat.” Many satisfy their hunger with alcohol and snack food, or don’t even have a concept of eating meals a regular time, except that which is provided at their workplace.


The percentage of those who feed themselves with instant or frozen food (28.9%) or who almost never eat after work (20.3%) is as many as 49.0% of the total. Many of the youths “get a can of beer and a snack from the convenience store on the way home (after work)”, “don’t eat on [their] days off”, or “mostly eat gimbap, ramen, or frozen food, and then a pork cutlet or bowl of black-bean noodles a couple of times a week”.


▲ Survey results. ⓒWorking School


“If you’re counting every penny, there are a lot of ‘one-meal days’... when I have a little extra I’d buy a dosirak, like that. When I get sick of ramen after eating almost nothing else, I force myself to eat it. So I lose weight and have a hard time. And feel fatigued.” (23-year-old man)


“They give you cooked rice [when you live] in a goshiwon, as you know. But there are no side dishes. So I just put some water in the rice and eat that every day. Then if I get hold of some money, I buy one portion of tteokbokki, divide it up, and eat it for three meals. It was so good when I was eating it, and then after finishing, I was sad.” (27-year-old woman)


“I would agonize over the decision to order food. I would think for three or four hours about ordering one fried chicken. And I pitied myself... one real meal costs at least 5,000 won, but I could get five ramen meals for that price.” (32-year-old man employed at a mall)


I don’t spend time with anyone... a life without relationships


Another difficulty that independently-living youths face is isolation. They complained that it’s hard to meet up with other people because of their busy working schedules and the financial burden. Youth who stopped school early report a particular lack of chances to form social relationships.


Secretary-General Lee explained, “You might think that starting work at a young age means that you form diverse social relationships, but in reality, it’s hard to form deep trust relationships as a young person working with older adults. It’s true that it’s hard to make friends with peers if you don’t go to university. And if you’re working six or seven days a week, it’s hard to have the energy to meet up with people.”


▲ Survey results. ⓒWorking School


To them, dating is also “something preceded by careful cost calculations” or “something I don’t have the confidence for”.


“I’m too busy working. I’m so busy that I’m not lonely. I work on weekdays and on weekends. I want to travel and go out for fun but I don’t have the luxury... Because going out costs money too.” (23-year-old man who works at a distribution warehouse)


“(When I was dating) we met up once a month. And I had to use vacation time to do that. It was so hard to get together that I wondered if dating was worth it. So we broke up amicably. (...) Even when we could meet up, it was for just a short time on a weekday to talk, it seemed like there was no chance to drink together or anything.” (26-year-old male sales representative)


Socially isolated, with no network of friends their own age, they feel an “information gap” between themselves and other youths. 


“Apartments reserved for youth to rent... the people who really need them don’t have info about them. University students have time to find the info and are good at finding it quickly but we (have to) work. We want to rest during the time we’d use to find it. The government should step up and expand that kind of thing. Affirmative action for high school graduates, that kind of thing is good.” (28-year-old male construction dayworker)


“I haven’t been lazy” – poverty is a structural problem


In addition to all this, independently-living youth complain of problems with unstable jobs and housing, debt, and the lack of time for leisure activities, saying, “Because I have to support myself without any help, I can’t ever stop working, even if I am treated unfairly or physically overworked,” “When my parents racked up huge debts because of business failures, falling victim to fraud, or hospital fees, I had to pay them,” and, “I’ve lived in motels, goshiwon, boarding houses, mokyoktang, and jjimjilbang.”


Ms. Lee pointed out, “Their poverty doesn’t stem from their own laziness or inadequacy, it is a structural problem inherited from their parents or their parents’ parents.”


“They haven’t lived lazy lives. Even though they’ve put in sufficient effort, they are in a position that makes it hard to escape from difficulties. They’re more like victims of poverty. Just like the state or society help those who’ve been harmed by unavoidable disasters like fires or storms, shouldn’t the poverty that these youth are suffering be viewed as a social disaster and be addressed with financial support?”


▲ The “Presentation of the Results of a Study on the Lives of Independently-Living Youth” held by Working School (January 13, Seongnam City, Smile Café) ⓒIlda


Impoverished independently-living youths need society’s attention


Working School, which produced “A Report on the Living Conditions of Independently-Living Youths”, has long taken note of the polarization of the young generation. Korean society’s problems of income distribution polarization and labor market polarization have been pointed out, and the young generation has been seen as the victim of those forms of polarization. But the polarization within that generation has not been recognized or addressed.


Ms. Lee said, “The polarization of the young generation doesn’t stop with financial matters. Cultural resources are also extremely divided, and it’s hard for impoverished youth to speak up in sociopolitical movements as well. Most youth activist groups are centered around college students and graduates, right? Independently-living youths who are poor or don’t go to college are non-existent or marginalized in those movements.”


“To impoverished independently-living youths, the more pressing matters are the food and housing problems that would make a difference to their life right away, the chance to take time off from work and rest, and the opportunity for interpersonal relationships in which trust can be formed long-term. But because [groups dealing with] youth issues center around college students, these problems are treated as unusual and of secondary importance.”


Ms. Lee complained, “The state’s and society’s efforts to find and meet impoverished independently-living youths have been terribly insufficient,” and emphasized that “just meeting and speaking with them in itself can give them strength and help them discover meaning in life”.


Park Gyeong-ran, a member of the research team who has also been an independently-living youth, said, “Independently-living youths, who worry not about college tuition but about surviving, are going through a winter that is particularly harsh even among the ‘N-po generation’[The generation that is having to give up on an endless number of typical life goals, such as marriage or buying a house, because of the country’s economic situation]”, and entreated, “Please listen more to their stories.”


Published May 9, 2017

Translated by Marilyn Hook

*Original article:


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