Revenge of the young
The author is director of the EYE Team at the JoongAng Ilbo.
A bonus is a pipe dream for a newspaper man like me. News organizations are hard-up these days, and were meager in handing out incentives in better times. We dared not ask how much might be offered or how it was calculated. We got whatever was given, at least that’s how it was for us in our 40s and 50s who worked for 20 to 30 years.
A young employee of SK Hynix sent out an email to other employees including the CEO questioning the basis of the year-end bonus. In reaction, SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won offered to return his own bonus package to employees and the chipmaker’s CEO vowed to enhance communication with employees.
The dispute over fatter bonus checks could be envied by people at other companies and the self-employed, who are struggling to make ends meet under the yearlong hardships of Covid-19. But the demand for a fairer share has spread to other big companies like Samsung and LG. The labor union of internet giant Naver also called for transparent guidelines for its performance-based incentives.
The speaking up by younger employees is a feature of the worldly — and assertive — Generation Z and earlier Millennials. Millennials refer to those born in the 1980s and 1990s and Gen Z is their successors, born in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They make up 30 to 40 percent of the Korean population. When including those born in the early 2010s, the number would total 22.8 million, which accounts for 44 percent of Korea’s population.
A generation’s moniker reflects its times. The Lost Generation referred to people who reached adulthood after World Word I, and who lost a sense of direction after enduring one of the most horrific wars. Gen Xers, or post-baby boomers, had tough times. The generation of renunciation refers to the young Koreans who have given up hope of finding jobs or starting a romantic relationship or family. The labeling could be an exaggeration or derive from marketing companies, but the narratives nevertheless have a kernel of truth to explain the characteristics of a cohort that shares contemporary experiences, lifestyles and thoughts.
Common characteristics of the Millennials and Generation Z are transparency, practicality and honesty. Particularly sensitive to fairness and transparency, they immediately question any injustice they stumble upon in their lives. Having grown up in a high-tech era with robust connection with the world, they are open and highly informed. After the SK Hynix controversy, employers have vowed to change guidelines for setting bonuses and pay greater heed to the voices of their younger employees.
These issues exist beyond the corporate sector as well. Fairness and transparency have been emphasized by President Moon Jae-in since he took office four years ago. But what panned out over the years has been the opposite. Deception and injustice dominated — and still do. Although packaged as being honorable, dirty politicking and scheming was obvious behind the deeds of Moon loyalists. Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su, who should be a paragon of fairness, refused to accept a senior judge’s resignation in order to subject him to a legislative impeachment. The taped record of Kim’s endless reiteration of the word “impeachment” during their private conversation — and the stealthy taping of it — are shocking. The chief justice has been exposed and his resignation is being suggested even by the ruling Democratic Party (DP).
Blacklisting is also unfair and dishonest. Kim Eun-kyung, former environment minister under the Moon administration, was sentenced to 30 months in jail for abusing power to oust executives of public corporations under her ministry’s jurisdiction because they had been appointed by the previous conservative administration. The Blue House denied the existence of such a blacklist. Nevertheless, nearly half of the heads of state enterprises under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism in the Moon administration were seated with people loyal to the president or his former campaign aides regardless of their qualifications.
In his book “The 90s Are Coming,” author Lim Hong-taek cited three features of the age: simplicity, fun and honesty. The young demand honesty in every field — politics, society, the economy. Many of them sit for the government-administered exams for civil servants as they believe they are the most fair job recruiting process in the country. But the senior level of the bureaucracy is hardly honest or fair. The Moon administration prizes itself as being fair and transparent. According to the latest Corruption Perceptions Index compiled by Transparency International, South Korea scored 61 points out of perfect 100 to rank 33rd among 180 countries. The National Human Rights Commission claimed it was the country’s best score ever and the president took the credit for anti-corruption reforms and endeavors to build a fairer society.
It may be the best score yet, but 61 is hardly good. Among 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korea ranked 23rd in the same index.
There is a long way to go to reach a truly fair and transparent society. The calls for greater justice and transparency can no longer be muffled. Otherwise, they will be directly challenged by the younger generations of Koreans.