[WHY] Influence of Korea's 2030 generation over the presidential election

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[WHY] Influence of Korea's 2030 generation over the presidential election

Longtime observers of Korean politics know that the partisan divide in the country runs along a generational fault line: one that pits older voters, shaped by post-war poverty and dramatic economic growth amid Cold War competition, against now middle-aged voters who grew up in relative prosperity but bristled against political repression as they came of age.
The latter band of voters — initially dubbed the “386 generation” in the 1990s for being in their 30s (at the time), attending university in the '80s, and being born in the '60s — have formed a reliable voting bloc for Korean progressives once the country became a full-fledged democracy in 1987, even as they entered their fifties.
However, while the two generations’ respective loyalties for Korea’s political parties persist, even as factions on both sides of the aisle have merged, split, or simply rebranded with a change of name, that ideological framework appears increasingly obsolete to a new generation: the so-called 2030 generation.
The main opposition People Power Party's presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol poses for a photograph with applicants to his campaign's youth outreach posts on Dec. 18. [YONHAP]

The main opposition People Power Party's presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol poses for a photograph with applicants to his campaign's youth outreach posts on Dec. 18. [YONHAP]

Who is the 2030 generation?
The 2030 generation — so named because its members are currently in their 20s and 30s — refers to young adults born in the 1980s and 1990s, with no memory of either the post-war economic boom or the country’s turbulent road to democracy.
Despite growing up in the most liberal and affluent period of Korea’s modern history, the 2030 generation, which largely corresponds to millennials in the West, is also the country’s most vulnerable — due to increasing job insecurity, unaffordable housing and the widening socioeconomic divide.
The reality lived by this generation is encapsulated by popular terms they coined, such as “gold spoon” and “dirt spoon,” which denote the divergent expectations of society’s haves and have-nots, and “Hell Joseon,” that lambasts the state of cutthroat competition at all stages of young people’s lives, from pre-university schooling and admissions to landing a stable job, while raging at their well-to-do peers who do not suffer the same struggles thanks to money or connections.
Especially pessimistic members of this generation call themselves the sampo saedae — the “three-without generation” — connoting their lack of prospects in finding a spouse, having a child, or owning a house.
The ruling Democratic Party's presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung takes a selfie with young social workers at a public welfare policy forum on Dec. 28, 2021. [YONHAP]

The ruling Democratic Party's presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung takes a selfie with young social workers at a public welfare policy forum on Dec. 28, 2021. [YONHAP]

What do they want?
The views of the 2030 generation regarding the presidential candidates are not readily apparent in general election surveys, most of which simply query individuals over the age of 18 on their choice for the country’s next president and try to balance the demographics of the respondents by age and gender.
Further complicating the picture is the fact that younger voters are not particularly invested in either of Korea’s two major political camps — embodied by the ruling Democratic Party (DP) and the main opposition People Power Party (PPP) — which command the loyalty of older generations shaped separately by Cold War conservatism and the country’s later struggle against the military dictatorship.
However, targeted polls of those in their 20s and 30s this past winter provide a glimpse into how their societal outlook affects their voting preferences in different ways from older generations.
Shortly after Kim Keon-hee, wife of PPP presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, was hit by accusations in December that she padded her resumés in applications to university teaching posts with fabricated career credentials, a JoongAng survey conducted on Dec. 30 and 31 showed that support for Yoon dropped by almost 9 percent.
That swing was especially pronounced among survey respondents in the 2030 generation, with Yoon hemorrhaging 19 percentage points in support from voters in their 30s and almost 9 percentage points from voters in their 20s.
While the survey did not ask voters why they swung away from Yoon following the allegations, the reasons are not difficult to surmise.
Sensitive to issues of justice and fairness, the anger of the 2030 generation towards differential treatment for the well-connected has exploded on a number of occasions in recent years.
The downfall of former President Park Geun-hye was precipitated by revelations in 2016 that Park’s longtime confidante and friend, Choi Soon-sil, leveraged her ties to the president to extract funding from Samsung for her daughter’s dressage career, and even pressured Ewha Womans University to create a special admissions track for equestrians the same year her daughter applied to college.
Following Park’s impeachment, then-DP candidate Moon Jae-in was elected president in May 2017 on a pledge to “eradicate deep-rooted evils,” riding a wave of public outrage at the nepotism at the very heart of Park’s administration.
It initially appeared that Moon’s campaign had assembled an effective coalition of the DP’s traditional middle-aged voting base, which aligned with his ideas of political reform, and younger voters seething at the extraordinary privileges enjoyed by Choi and her daughter to take control of the Blue House. However, the DP soon discovered accusations of privilege could be a double-edged sword, also wielded against members of Moon's own administration.
That moment came when accusations of similar “gold spoon” treatment were levied against the daughter of Cho Kuk, Moon’s close political ally and his pick for the post of Justice Minister, just as Cho was undergoing the nomination process in autumn 2019.
Cho’s daughter was revealed to have been listed as a co-author of a highly advanced pathology research paper when she was just in high school — a suspicious achievement she listed in her successful applications to Korea University and Pusan University’s graduate medical school.
These allegations against Cho, who had spent much of his academic career railing against inequality in Korean society, struck a nerve among youth and ignited mass protests calling for the withdrawal of Cho’s nomination. Unsurprisingly, Moon’s previously sky-high approval ratings tanked as he stood by his nominee.
Given this history, perhaps it is not particularly surprising that the resume-padding scandal surrounding Yoon's wife sparked a swing of younger voters away from him.
How are the candidates targeting the 2030 generation?
Perhaps conscientious of his falling appeal to millennials, the PPP candidate announced shortly after the start of the new year that he would reorient his presidential campaign to accommodate their concerns.
“From now on, I will carry out my campaign alongside the 2030 generation,” Yoon announced at the PPP’s headquarters in Yeouido, western Seoul, on Jan. 5. “Voters in their 20s and 30s do not yet belong to an established political camp, and I have realized their views about the world are not only flexible, but also perhaps the most open and universal.”
One way in which Yoon has attempted to tap into the youth vote is to pick up a hot, albeit divisive, issue among the 2030 generation: feminism.
In a Facebook post on Jan. 8 which read simply, “Abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family,” Yoon targeted an institution whose function and name in Korean, which literally translates as the Ministry of Women and Families, is perceived by young men as promoting women’s rights at the expense of their own.
His language echoed that of his party’s 36-year-old leader, Lee Jun-seok, who has previously claimed that gender-based discrimination is exaggerated and women’s issues receive too much attention, even as the gender pay gap in the country remains the widest among countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
By singling out the gender equality ministry for abolition, Yoon appeared to be trying to woo back young male supporters, whose turn away from the party coincided with the appointment of 31-year-old feminist politician Shin Ji-ye as a senior deputy chair of a now disbanded party committee.
Yoon, who clashed with Lee over Shin’s appointment, wrote a Facebook post on Jan. 3 apologizing for the pick, saying that he “failed to read the minds of those in their 20s and 30s,” and admitting he had “greatly disappointed the younger generation.”
While the PPP candidate has focused on channeling the anger of the male subset of the 2030 generation into votes, his DP rival Lee Jae-myung has attempted to address the controversy over feminism among Korean millennials without picking a side.
Lee, who on Jan. 22 said that he does not wish to “encourage gender conflict to win votes,” has pointedly refused to defend feminist ideas of correcting gender discrimination. Instead, the DP candidate said he hopes that a time might come when politicians could focus on helping “people” rather than “women,” saying the focus on women was “unavoidable because of their disadvantage in society” at a Jan. 9 panel discussion on online sex crimes.
Will this demographic make a difference?
Part of the reason why the 2030 generation is the focus of both major candidates’ outreach in this upcoming election is because this age group is the largest undecided bloc in the electorate.
In the April parliamentary election last year, young voters between the ages of 18 and 39 made up more than a third of all voters who participated in the polls, at 34 percent. Meanwhile, voters over the age of 60 accounted for 27.3 percent of the vote, while those in their 40s and 50s together accounted for 38.7 percent of ballots cast.
Despite their large share of the vote, a smaller proportion of millennial voters participated in the last election compared to older generations. Fewer than 60 percent of voters in their 20s and 30s cast ballots in the 2020 parliamentary election, whereas 70 percent of voters in their fifties and 80 percent of voters in their sixties did so.
However, Korean millennials’ disconnect from the traditional ideological paradigm also leaves their votes open to grabs if candidates can target the issues that matter to them and convince them to turn out at the polls — already, Yoon is reaping the polling dividends of appealing to young male voters.
While the Embrain survey commissioned by the JoongAng Ilbo conducted just before the New Year showed that the PPP candidate was least-preferred among voters in their 20s — trailing even Ahn Cheol-soo of the minor opposition People's Party — by the time of a second JoongAng survey held on Jan. 15 and 16, he had gained a whopping 16.9 percentage points in support among voters in the same age group.
Admittedly, the reverse swing in millennial votes towards Yoon in mid-January did coincide with a slew of negative coverage of Lee Jae-myung’s wife's use of his government-issued credit card, so it is difficult to say for sure that Yoon’s campaign focus on young men was the decisive factor that allowed him to claw back the vote of the 2030 generation in the mid-January survey.
Yet the result mirrors the demographic trends of the Seoul mayoral election in April, when about 70 percent of men in their 20s and younger voted for the conservative candidate — almost equal to the conservative votes cast by men 60 and older.
All told, the dramatic shifts in candidate support driven by members of the 2030 generation suggest they will be a potent voting bloc for whoever can win their ballots.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]
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