The youth backlash
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
I recently had a chance to talk to some people in their 20s. They said they see no hope as they work on short-term contracts and part-time jobs. As they stand on the starting line of their lives, they can only hope for some unimaginable event to bring change. “We want the Asian economic crisis to come again. We have nothing to lose. If home prices plummet and the current situation reverses, we may have one last chance,” they said.
People in their 20s, who were born in the 1990s, will likely be the first generation in the history of the Republic of Korea that end up poorer than their parents. According to Statistics Korea, 1.41 million — or 40 percent of the 3.53 million salaried workers in their 20s — are non-salaried workers. That number went up from 32 percent in 2016 to 40 percent over the past five years of the Moon Jae-in administration. The figure is higher than 23 percent for people in their 30s, 29 percent for people in their 40s and 36 percent for people in their 50s. As those in their 20s are the weakest strata of our labor force, they were forced to take non-salaried jobs. It is a devastating outcome for the Moon administration, which promised to offer permanent employment to all contract workers.
The asset gap is the widest among those in their 20s. The top 20 percent in that age group has average assets worth 328.55 million won ($277,421), while the bottom 20 percent own an average of 8.44 million won. The gap is 39-fold. The decisive factor for the critical wealth gap among the people in their 20s is whether you inherited wealth from your parents or not. The young have taken out loans and invested in the stock market, but the market’s future is not that bright amid a global shift toward austerity. If stock prices fall, they will lose more than hope.
There’s another issue of the sex ratio imbalance. There are 410,000 more men in their 20s than women of the same age. Last year, there were 3.72 million men and 3.31 million women in their 20s. The imbalance was caused by abortions of female fetuses in the 1990s, when Korean families favored sons. The sex imbalance will lead to many social problems. Men will express hatred toward women, and women will counter it with similar rage toward men.
Because of their hardships, the age group has complicated thoughts. Presidential candidates are presenting pork-barrel pledges before the March 9 election, but voters in their 20s are not impressed. When the government spends, they worry that they will eventually have to pay for it. They are mature enough not recognize populism. In other words, they have a strong sense of victimhood.
As they were born after democratization, they are less interested in the ideological confrontation between the liberals and the conservatives. Instead, they are more sensitive to unfairness, inequality, corruption, and abuse of power. Those who were enraged at President Park Geun-hye in 2016 threw stones at Justice Minister Cho Kuk in 2019. From their point of view, Park’s conservative supporters and the pro-Moon faction that defend Cho are the same.
They are very angry about the Daejang-dong land development scandal engulfing the ruling Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung. According to a Gallup Korea poll, 72 percent of the people in their 20s said an independent counsel investigation is necessary, the highest among all age groups. When presidential candidates promised to end corruption, they laugh. “You are the unfair, corrupt establishment, aren’t you?” they say. They are not pushovers.
They also have a strong resentment toward labor unions. They think labor unions are part of the establishment, who built up entitlements for themselves and their families. Hyundai Motor recently rehired 1,475 retired workers from production lines after consultation with the labor union. During the same period, only 102 new workers were recruited.
People in their 20s are also dissatisfied with the Moon administration for not reforming our pension system. “When we are old enough to receive pensions, it will run out. This government is the only government that did not carry out a reform plan to make people pay more and receive less. It is ignoring thorny issues and kicking the can to the next government. This is what we see as unfairness,” they said.
If you side with the government in front of the people in their 20s, who are already upset about soaring home prices and the dearth of jobs, you will face criticism. According to a Realmeter poll, Moon’s approval rating among the age group was 22.9 percent during the first week of November. That is the lowest among all age groups, even lower than 24.2 percent among people over 70. DP presidential candidate Lee said his first pledge is restoring growth. He even praised the late President Park Chung Hee for industrialization. And yet, he promised to inherit the philosophy and policies of Moon. For Lee to win young votes, he must put some distance between himself and the Moon administration.
The young are also pessimistic about the conservatives’ neoliberalism. They are particularly upset about their lack of empathy. “If the market works, will we all be rich? Will there be jobs? We only confirmed the winner-takes-all during the conservative Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye presidencies.”
In the campaign of opposition People Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl, many are veterans of the Lee and Park administrations. Their heads are filled with neoliberalism. Yoon said he was touched by the book, “Free to Choose.” Its author, Milton Friedman, is the godfather of neoliberalism.
In next year’s presidential election, 7.95 million voters aged between 18 to 29 — 18 percent of all voters — will play a crucial role. In the Seoul and Busan mayoral by-elections in April, their votes were critical.
Both Lee and Yoon are unpopular with the voters in their 20s. What’s clear is that they won’t be able to win the young votes with condescension. They won’t be able to win their support with populist pledges or by mimicking past governments.