Generational conflict? Think again

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Generational conflict? Think again

Since to the last time I was in Korea, the misery of young people has increased even further. They are denied opportunities that were afforded to older Koreans, and they even want to escape the country, much like the protagonist in ‘Because I hate Korea’ — a novel that isn’t so much a novel, but rather a long list of reasons why everything is awful.

The ‘poor young people’ narrative is present in most industrialized countries these days, including my own. Getting a good job in London or Seoul is genuinely very hard, property is expensive, and social mobility seems to have gone the way of good pop music, Hollywood films that aren’t sequels or remakes and Cyworld.

Politicians and the commentators love the youth misery angle, which is instinctively compelling. But the problem is often presented in terms of a ‘generational conflict’, as though misery were the exclusive province of the young, and one imposed upon them by the old.
From one side, the older generation are the ones who own all the property and vote for the continuation of the status quo. From the other, the young don’t realize how materially lucky they are compared to past generations, and ought to stop complaining. The two groups seemingly have different outlooks on everything, and cannot possibly understand each other. In Korea, Generationalism is Regionalism 2, the big blockbuster sequel – equally popular, and equally predictable.

In Korea as in Britain and most other well-off countries, young people are less likely to vote. If you’re a typical member of the older generation, you’ll probably get what you want on Election Day. This is certainly going to be the case in Korea next month — while for the first time in a long time, the Minjoo Party of Korea is actually improving itself, Ahn Cheol-soo is busy making his final major act in the political sphere: helping President Park Geun-hye take full control over both her party and the country overall. One wonders if democracy will survive in the long run.
But who is really on the winning team anyway? If you are a wealthy member of the older generation, it is highly likely that your children and grandchildren will still have decent opportunities for education, respectable employment, and marriage. And if you’re poor, they probably won’t. There is a winning team and a losing team, but they’re both composed of people of all ages.

There may well be a lot of miserable young people. But who do you see having a great time throwing money around in Hongdae on a Saturday night, or shopping on Garosugil on a Sunday afternoon? And who do you see picking up aluminium cans and cardboard boxes for recycling? Who has the highest generational poverty rate in the OECD, the earliest ‘retirement’, and the most meagre of pensions after a lifetime of extraordinarily hard work? And why, according to a recent survey, do 38.4% of women over 65 think about suicide — a much higher rate than any other cohort?

If there’s a real issue, it is socioeconomic class — or put more bluntly, money. Of course for most of its short history, South Korea has been relatively egalitarian in terms of income distribution. This was the result of history rather than political intervention. Without the latter, reversion is more or less inevitable, and that is what is happening now. It is natural for people to fight hard to preserve whatever advantages they have built up, and to pass on money and opportunities to their children — especially when economic growth is no longer what it used to be.

Modern Korea does things very quickly. I often think 10 years of change in Korea is worth 50 in Europe or America. If that is true, the entrenchment of social class will likely be a rapid process too. A small but awe-inducing example pointing in that direction: the growth in (and media coverage of) uniquely Korean ‘postpartum care centers, or sanhujoriwon’ that can charge 20 million won ($17,000) due to the belief that a baby born in one will have access to a lifelong elite social network of fellow graduates (for want of a better term). Maybe it isn’t just about the Seoul National University or some fancy foreign language schools any more — you can start cementing your place on the winning team on day one, if your parents have the cash.

It seems to me that the difference between the generations is purely psychological. Older people just continue to fight on as they always have done, whilst the young have grasped the new class-based reality and are increasingly likely to make the sad but rational choice to ‘give up’ — ‘You can do it’ recast as ‘You still cannot make it’. But grandfather, mother, and son still eat with the same class of spoons. There’s no serious inter-generational inequality — only an inter-generational conflict built on hot air.

*The author, former Seoul correspondent for The Economist, is co-founder and chief curator of Byline and the author of "Korea: The Impossible Country" and "North Korea Confidential’’.

Daniel Tudor
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