[Viewpoint] An investment in the youngThere was a time when the young wrote the pages of our national history. In that long ago era, the pure and fearless were relied upon to save the world and point the way to the future.
At the age of 19, poet Choe Nam-seon (1890-1957) proclaimed that the young generation would serve as crusaders to revolutionize society, and he published the first Korean-language magazine “Sonyeon” (“Youth”) in the early 20th century.
His poem in the first edition, entitled “From the Sea to the Boy,” starts with a provocative phrase: “Strike, shatter, and tear into pieces!” That was a roaring outburst against the weak older generation who lost the country to Japan.
His contemporary and literary friend Yi Kwang-su (1892-1950), in what became the first Korean novel “Mujong” (“The Heartless”), preached the enlightenment of youth through intellectual strength. Another writer, Choe Suh-hae (1901-1932), said Korea’s youth had to choose between “revolution and love.”
Some youth chose the former, throwing themselves into activist movements, and others chose the sea of romantic passion. But most of those young hearts were torn apart in agony, seeing no signs of an end to colonial rule or our nation reaching the crossroads between modernity and traditional ideals.
Those were times of desperate longing and ambition. But those times are gone. Today, this land is more prosperous than at any time in our 5,000 years of history and yet the young feel neither revolutionary zeal nor passionate love.
The young are too preoccupied with the immediate challenge of breaking various social barriers while being chained to rigid social obligations to remember that their age entitles them to be heroes of history.
An intelligent young man graduated from a vocational high school and landed a job as an accounting clerk at a midsize company. He later entered a university to get a degree and a better-paying job. But he now dreads that the only profession waiting for him in the real world is the same accounting work he tried to escape.
His fear is shared by 2.2 million university students today. No big thinker offers spiritual enlightenment or guidance for their future, and no policy maker has come up with a feasible plan to make their lives easier. So the age of youth is wasted without adventure or romance.
The young should at least be entitled to some psychological peace if they’re not offered jobs suitable to their inflated academic records and aspirations.
They are educated to pursue creativity and innovation, but shoved into part-time jobs that pay 5,000 won ($4.65) or slightly more an hour. Yet they are too weary to protest. Their fates are written in the major challenges of starting a family at a time of sky-high home prices and supporting their aging parents.
The ruling party is seriously deliberating slashing university tuitions. Many European countries offer free college education as a means of investing in the future. The youth are an investment for a society.
Korea is a country where the economy relies heavily on the education industry. National and public universities charge average yearly tuitions of 4.5 million won and private ones 7.5 million won. Average citizens take out loans to educate their children, move to smaller homes, sell homes to marry them off and enter their golden years with no house or savings.
A cut in college tuitions can aid both the youth and the older generations. The average household would be less burdened and the youth will have more leisure and luxury to savor their early years.
Opposition is understandable. Some will demand similar cuts in high schools and a fair share to those who don’t attend universities. Others argue that the money could be better spent creating more jobs. These questions should be addressed. But for now, we should focus on the social call.
History evolves through communication and interaction between different generations. A country cannot move forward when the young are depressed by financial burdens and intimidated by the idea of being adventuresome. We must do something about a situation in which university students seek part-time pyramid sales jobs and turn into financial delinquents before they even enter adulthood.
Subsidizing college tuitions should be a campaign to save the young wasting their talents. It would be the older generation’s generous gesture, urging the young to concentrate on their youthful prerogatives.
It is good to see politicians finally turn their eyes to the plight of the young. If the purpose of subsidizing university fees is aimed at returning youthful rights to the young, Korea should consider a longer-term vision of a society with free education.
*The writer is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.
By Song Ho-keun