Youth’s revoltThe Moon Jae-in administration has been dazed by the young generation’s objection to the plan for the two Koreas to field a joint team in the women’s ice hockey competitions at the Feb. 9-25 PyeongChang Winter Olympics. It cannot understand why people in their 20s and 30s are opposed to the peace-making move. Blue House officials, most of whom fought for democracy and against anti-Communist military regimes and were for rapprochement with North Korea in their younger days, have been taken aback by the entirely different mindset of today’s young, who supported Moon in the last presidential election. They may like to recite the inscription from an Ancient Egyptian tomb: “We live in a decaying age. Young people are rude and impatient.”
But Koreans in their 20s and 30s have not turned truculent without reason. They are outraged that the government unilaterally made a decision and forced the national team to accept North Koreans. They grumble that Hyon Song-wol, a former North Korean band leader who heads a North Korean delegation of artists who will perform during the Olympics, recently stole the spotlight from Kim Yuna, Korea’s prized figure skater, who has been promoting the PyeongChang event ever since South Korea won the right to host the 2018 Winter Olympics. Their protest is a watershed event in a country where national interests traditionally came first. Today’s youth place themselves before their country.
Koreans never really had time for themselves. They were exploited in the industrialization period to fight post-war poverty. Their chances for individual freedoms after the collapse of the 500-year-old Joseon dynasty was crushed by Japan’s colonization. The land was bisected by Cold War superpowers and suffered a war.
The individual was taken for granted for the good and discipline of the whole community. There was little chance of developing individualistic identities and self-dignity. Because our identity was not self-built, Koreans have been poor in forming mature relationships with others. Per capita income may be nearing $30,000, but Korea has topped the suicide rate among the developed countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development for 13 years.
Young Koreans are rebelling against a dead-end society. They shout for the right to pursue their individuality and happiness. The adult generation from the industrialization and democratization eras could criticize them as being spoiled. But the young people that poured into the streets every weekend last winter to oust a president who had seriously impaired our constitutional democracy are enraged at a liberal president they elected, who disappointed them with questionable and unjust decisions. They choose individual happiness over national interests. Their parents could deem them as selfish, but nobody can blame them for defending their individualism.
The government must accept the advent of an individualistic society. What is self-dignity? The family or the workplace one goes to should not matter. A being is a small universe struggling every day to sustain one’s self in the paradoxical physical world where life and death coexist. He or she is a living organism that is capable of both love and hate. Every one of them is worthy of respect.
The government’s fate hinges on the under-40 generation. It could easily lose power if it does not read them and respond to them well. What will really turn them off is not the government’s overbearing policy on cryptocurrencies or the joint ice hockey team, but the hopeless job market. The official youth unemployment rate was 9.9 percent in December, but the actual joblessness hovered at 22.7 percent when counting those between jobs.
The baby boomers’ offspring are joining the job market. By 2022, new entrants to the job market between the ages of 25 and 29 will surge to 3.63 million from 3.25 million in 2016. If the liberal government cannot make jobs for them, it cannot dream of an extended term. This may be why President Moon Jae-in hastily called for a government meeting on job creation on Thursday, the day when his approval rating sank below 60 percent for the first time.
But the government’s current prescriptions are not helping create jobs for the young. The sudden spike in the minimum wage has cut jobs in small workplaces. The government is offering to subsidize 130,000 won ($120) to cover employees’ monthly pay increases, but employers are not applying for the government aid because of the requirement that they cover employment insurance fees. Shortened work hours and pressure to place contract workers on the permanent payrolls have also discouraged companies from hiring new workers. Yet the government is dragging its feet on deregulation and reforms in the labor market. All of its policies have so far ended up killing, not creating, jobs.
To win the hearts of the under-40 age group, the government must be more realistic. They will instantly turn their back if the government does not convince them. They also like honesty. The government can regain confidence from the young by admitting that it has erred in its moves on cryptocurrencies and the ice hockey team.
The government must not only look to its loyalists. It must be true to the idea of a democratic government and respect the diverse voices of each and every individual.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 29, Page 31
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.