[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]Here comes a real generation gapThe recent presidential election produced much analysis of the gap between the “2030 Generation” and the “5060 Generation.” The gap was sharp and clean: Roh Moo-hyun won almost 60 percent of the vote of people in their 20s and 30s, whereas Lee Hoi-chang won the nearly the same percentage of the vote of people in their 50s and 60s. The candidates split the vote of people in their 40s evenly. The sharpness of the generation divide turned discussion of distinct regional voting patterns into a footnote. The 2030 Generation laid claim to the nation as the 5060 Generation faded into the sunset.
The even division between voters in their 40s raises an interesting question: Will the 2030 Generation become more conservative as it ages? At the heart of this question, of course, is what is a political generation in Korea?
“Generation” is an oft-misused word. In family life, a generation is marked by the birth of children, usually within a fairly narrow age range. In public life, a generation refers to a group of people that have come of age at about the same time. Dramatic events, social changes, and the spirit of the times often define a generation, but some generations are more clearly defined than others. In public life in Korea, the Korean War, the Park Chung Hee dictatorship, and the democracy movement have defined the outlook of distinct generations. The generations that came of age during the Korean War and the Park Chung Hee dictatorship have much in common. Both experienced poverty in childhood, an anti-communist education and restricted civil liberties. Politics was an exercise in confirming the existing order rather than choosing.
Chaos came as the existing order collapsed with the assassination of Park Chung Hee in 1979 and the emergence of Chun Doo Hwan as the new strongman. The spring of 1980 produced a brief hope for democracy that was crushed in the Gwangju massacre that May. These events and the subsequent seven-year struggle for democracy defined the outlook of the “democracy generation” of persons now aged 30 to 44.
The democracy generation is confident because it has won its battles. It brought Chun Doo Hwan down, fought for workers rights and demanded freedom of the press, drove corrupt politicians from office, pushed reconciliation with North Korea, unlocked information through the Internet and elected Roh Moo-hyun as president.
To this generation, politics is not about chaos, but about change, and change is about turning Korea into a better country.
If other countries are any guide, confident generations make themselves heard for a long time. The aging of a confident generation may make it more conservative in outlook, but its underlying confidence and interest in change never wavers. Expect the same from the democracy generation, which is Koera’s most populous generation, numbering nearly 13 million persons in 2002, over a quarter of all Koreans. The combined population of the Korean War and Park Chung Hee generations is 13.5 million and the population of the 15-29 age group, the so-called “N Generation,” is about 11.5 million. Numbers alone will ensure that the democracy generation will change society as it ages and focuses on quality of life and reunification.
Having struggled for democracy in its youth and competed aggressively for economic security in early middle age, this generation will soon find that its children are growing up and will begin to worry about their children’s lives. Dissatisfaction with the education system, economic opportunity, the environment and other quality-of-life issues will grow.
To the democracy generation, reunification is a problem that must be solved, which is why it consistently supports Kim Dae-jung's “sunshine policy.”
As its members move into positions of responsibility, the generation will become increasingly impatient about the pace of progress toward reunification, perhaps putting it at odds with the older and younger generations in South Korea that fear the cost of reunification.
As it moves through life, the democracy generation will find that its size and confidence will cause unease among both older and younger generations. This, not the 2030/5060 divide, is the real generational divide in Korean society.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
by Robert J. Fouser