Dissertation Abstracts

Insecure Millennials: Coming of Age in Seoul and Tokyo

Author: Yuki Asahina, yukiasah@hawaii.edu
Department: Sociology
University: University of Hawaii at Manoa, United States
Supervisor: Patricia G. Steinhoff
Year of completion: 2019
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Adulthood , Inequality , Insecurity , East Asia
Areas of Research: Social Classes and Social Movements , Work , Youth


This dissertation examines how young adults in East Asia’s two global cities perceive and respond to growing economic insecurity and inequality. In particular, it looks at the three competitive markets of education, labor, and marriage that shape young adults’ lives. Drawing on 14 months of ethnographic research in Seoul and Tokyo and interviews with 98 young adults from different socio-economic backgrounds, it incorporates two levels of analysis. First, by focusing on individual and collective level dispositions, it describes gender and class specific forms of anxiety about education, work, and marriage that young adults confront in East Asia. Those who graduated from the most selective universities and hold relatively secure employment are often more anxiety-ridden about their future than those who hold irregular employment. College-educated women were afraid that their career opportunities would be foreclosed if they marry. At the same time, they also fear spending their entire life alone if they choose a career over private life. Young men in Seoul were expected to buy a house as a prerequisite to marriage, yet it is a difficult thing to afford even for those with secure employment. Second, by looking at ways structural, institutional, and cultural contexts affect their experiences, it explores why people experience inequality and insecurity in the ways they do in different places. In spite of many commonalities, such as trajectories of economic development, the failure of the state to provide security to citizens, and levels of income inequality, young adults in Seoul are much more anxiety-ridden and sensitive to economic inequality than their peers in Tokyo. I found that young adults in Seoul have a stronger desire to enter the small world of top firms, schools, and neighborhoods among young people than their peers in Tokyo and are stressed out from their commitment to competition. This in turn creates the perceived sense of relative deprivation, the source of perceived injustice. The relational approach to economic insecurity proposed in this dissertation complements the theories of risks, precarity, and neoliberal subjects that are not fully equipped to explain variations in perception of insecurity and inequality. By applying Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts relationally, this dissertation demonstrated how differences in the organizations of the fields of work, education, and marriage can help account for differences in the ways young people feel, perceive, and respond to growing insecurity. The combination of these structural, institutional, and cultural contexts constitutes a conditional mechanism of subjective economic insecurity that might have the potential to explain cases other than Korea and Japan, although its applicability remains to be examined.

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