Revenge of voters in their 40s
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
There is a saying from 19th and 20th-century Western society that “If you are not a liberal when you are young, you have no heart, and if you are not a conservative when old, you have no brain.” It was a worldwide phenomenon to be a liberal when young, but become a conservative when you aged. In Korea, those in their 20s and 30s were mainly liberal, but those older than 50 are mainly conservative.
But that structure was broken in 2012. Although Moon Jae-in was defeated, he won 55 percent of the votes cast by the voters in their 40s, far surpassing 44 percent that Park Geun-hye had secured. In other words, the age group of the 40s became the core supporters of the liberal.
How could people in their 40s remain liberal?
First, an ageing society can be the reason. Famous poet Seo Jeong-ju wrote in 1959, when he was 45, that the age 45 is an age you can see a ghost. Not anymore. The average age of the country’s populations was 37 in 2008, 40.2 in 2015 and 42.8 in 2020. In an aging society with a low-birth rate, the average age continued rising. That is why people in their 40s think they are still young and liberal.
Second, those in their 40s were born in the 1970s. They were elementary, middle and high school students in the 1980s, while feeling the heat of democratization through their elder siblings. When they started their careers in their 20s, the country was hit by the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis and faced a serious unemployment crisis. Since then, the Korean economy entered the era of low growth. Those in their 40s did not experience the benefit of rapid economic growth, so they felt relatively deprivation. They believed that the foreign currency crisis was caused by the older generation, and their sense of anger is significant.
They believed that the International Monetary Fund was too harsh on Korea and the United States was behind it. Their anti-American sentiment was fueled by the accidental road deaths of two girls by an armored vehicle of the U.S. military, and candlelight protests started. The passion to change everything produced the Roh Moo-hyun administration. In 2008, when they were in their 30s, their candlelight protests against the Lee Myung-bak administration’s policy of reopening the country’s market to U.S. beef imports quickly overwhelmed the new administration. When they entered their 40s, they led the protests in late 2016, which led to the impeachment and removal of conservative President Park Geun-hye.
Third, the people in their 40s benefited largely from the pro-labor policy. This is the realistic reason why they are still liberal. Of the full-time workers, 3.63 million are in their 40s, comprising the largest number. They are protected by labor unions, which became more powerful since Moon came into office. They are also the beneficiaries of the 52-hour workweek. And yet, they cannot avoid an economic slump. In 2019, jobless people increased by 130,000 in the 40s age group, the largest number among all age groups. Last year, 140,000 more people in their 40s lost their jobs.
They were supposed to hold a grudge toward the government when their lives became tough, but the presidential approval rating in the 40s age group remained 50 to 60 percent. After the April 15 parliamentary elections last year, it even skyrocketed to 73.5 percent. Scandals of Rep. Yoon Mee-hyang and the late Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, the government’s failed real estate policy, an attempt to purge Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and the ruling party’s use of its supermajority to railroad controversial bills through the National Assembly did not stop the people in their 40s from supporting Moon. They tried to ignore the administration’s shortcomings and hypocrisy. That was an amazing unity.
But a surprise was seen late last year.
The approval rating of Moon among the people in their 40s dropped to 46.3 percent in the second week of December. It was the first time that more people — 50.8 percent — said they do not support the president.
The people in their 40s turned their backs on Moon because of Covid-19 vaccines. When about 40 countries started vaccinating their people, the local media started reporting that the government has failed to procure vaccine. Vaccines are not an issue of the liberal against the conservative. It is a matter of life or death. The approval rating among the 40s plummeted further to 45.4 percent.
The slow procurement of vaccines was something like the sinking Sewol ferry in 2014. The government was incompetent in protecting the health of the people. Officials high-handedly condemned critics to “not politicize the use of vaccines.” But the government, which only paid attention to promoting its success in a battle against the virus, belatedly realized the urgency. Although it is making announcements about vaccine procurement plans, no one knows who will receive the shot and exactly when. It is clear that we are about six months later than major countries. Imagine that the people in Japan are vaccinated first. Imagine that we have to just watch the people of other countries freely traveling with “vaccine passports.”
Liberal intellectuals worry about the division among the liberals. When the people in their 40s withdraw their supports, the consequence will be more than expected, particularly when Moon’s term is nearing an end.