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[Social cohesion (9)] Ideological differences divide generations

[Social cohesion (9)] Ideological differences divide generations

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Published : 2010-03-30 14:44
Updated : 2010-03-30 14:44



Korean society has witnessed, more often than ever, a generational difference turning into conflict. Thus, a thorough analysis of generation in terms of its ideological orientation and stance on controversial policies holds the key to unraveling the conflict.
The life cycle effect and the political cohort effect are commonly used to explain the generational gap in a socio-political context. The former is based on changes of one`s social outlook in keeping with one`s biological age. The latter focuses on one`s political views and values that have been formed in one`s teens.
The generational gap is closely linked to Korean modern history. It comes from the assumption that Korea`s rapid changes due to such historic upheavals like the Korean War, rapid economic development, and democratization make one generation predisposed to a certain political outlook and behavior drastically different from that of another generation.
Talk of generation highlights the democratization generation, since this generation was the driving force behind the realization of democracy, a giant leap in Korean history. Members of this generation developed their progressive, liberal stance while having strived for democratization against the authoritarian regime. It was also at a time when direct threats by North Korea had subsided, for the most part, and material affluence was prevalent.
All of the above conditions helped shape this generation`s more liberal stance which is in sharp contrast with the preceding generation`s conservatism. This generation demonstrated its distinct political-ideological stance through voting in the 2002 presidential election. Their coherent vote choice drew keen media attention.
This article analyzes generational differences in ideology and political issues in conjunction with democratic values such as freedom, equality and social order. Instead of the usual three generations - the new generation, the democratization generation, and the war/industrialization generation, in ascending order of age - this article expands the discussion to four generations, for more complete analysis.
The most influential, loosely-grouped democratization generation is dissected into two: the older, democratization striving generation (DSG), and the younger, democratization realization generation (DRG). The 1987 civilian uprising for democratization is the chronological threshold separating one group from the other. The DSG, whose current age ranges from 43 to 51, struggled and succeeded in toppling the military dictatorship in 1987. At that time, members of the DRG, whose current age ranges from 38 to 42, were between 16 and 20, the formative years of socio-political consciousness.
Much of the data used in this article is from a poll jointly conducted from May 15 to 16, 2009 by the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper and the Korea Social Science Data Center, surveying 800 men and women over the age of 19. The data quoted is all statistically significant at the 5 percent level.

Korea`s ideological

The principal values of democracy are freedom, equality and order, and clashes of any of these values create a dilemma for a democratic regime. Given a choice between freedom and order, choosing freedom is considered liberal, whereas choosing order is viewed as conservative. However, in the case of freedom versus equality, freedom is considered conservative and equality is liberal.
On the basis of this political value scale, Koreans are conservative, with 78 percent selecting order over freedom, but when they`re forced to choose between freedom and equality, they become liberal, with 70 percent choosing equality ahead of freedom.
There`s a wide generational gap between the younger and older generation in the choice of freedom versus order. However, in the instance of freedom versus equality, there is a wide gap between the democratization generation and other generations. The democratization generation rates freedom higher than any other generation, but if we are to compare the democratization generation rating between the DSG and the DRG, there is no significant difference between them.
With respect to freedom versus order, the two groups rate freedom similarly, whereas between the two groups and other generations, there is a considerable difference. Thus, as far as ideology is concerned, the DSG and DRG are considered homogeneous.
With respect to the results on freedom versus order and freedom versus equality, it can be inferred that the majority of Koreans are populist, with 57 percent prioritizing freedom over order and equality. The conservatives, who rate order highest and value freedom above equality, are in second place with 21 percent. At 14 percent are the liberals who rank equality highest, while valuing freedom above order. Libertarians come in fourth, rating freedom highest out of freedom, order, and equality.
The ideological orientation of generations can be summarized as follows: First, the populist stance is the majority appearing across all generations, among which the war/industrialization generation (WIG) ranks first (72 percent). Second, the most conservative is the DSG (26 percent). Third, the most liberal is the new generation (21 percent). Fourth, the most libertarian is the DRG (15 percent).

Controversial policies
and generations

Among controversial policies, economic aid to North Korea was a policy that had more opponents than supporters, regardless of generation. Across the generations, opposition (65 percent) dominated support (35 percent), with the rate of opposition increasing as the generation gets older.
With respect to the abolition of the National Security Act, there is more opposition (63 percent) than support (37 percent), but the generational chasm is more significant. The abolition of the National Security Act is controversial in that the law could cause a clash between freedom and order, as the law could encroach on the fundamental rights such as freedom of expression. The democratization realization generation, in particular, is by far more supportive (48 percent) of the abolition of the law than the democratization striving generation (40 percent), and still more supportive than the new generation (45 percent). It can be interpreted that this generation, whose ideological inclination is libertarian, is more likely concerned with freedom and human rights.

Regarding the issue of the most suitable role for women, all generations (72 percent on average) are opposed to the traditional view of homemaking as the most suitable role. However, there is a wide generational gap between the younger and older generations. At 26 percent, the democratization generation`s support rate is higher than the new generation`s (16 percent) by 10 percentage points, but is lower than the older generation`s (45 percent). This explains that the democratization generation is more conservative than the new generation, but much less conservative than the older generation.
On the other hand, there is no discernible generational difference regarding policies on social welfare, the environment, and the easing of development restrictions in the Seoul and the adjacent region.
In answer to the question, "Should the government increase taxes to expand welfare for low income people?", there is more support (61 percent) than opposition (39 percent), and no generational difference. As for the statement, "In planning development projects, environmental conservation should take precedence over economic gains," there is significantly more support (80 percent) than opposition (20 percent). However, regarding the following statement, "It is necessary to ease the restrictions on development of Seoul and the capital zone," support (55 percent) and opposition (45 percent) are very close, and is consistent across all generations.

Political behavior of the
democratization generation

In a democratic society, its citizens` voluntary, active participation and interest in politics is invaluable. What is intriguing is that, at 48 percent the democratization realization generation shows more interest in politics than the democratization striving generation (45 percent). The DRG`s interest in politics is greater than that of the new generation (32 percent) as well as the DSG, which is unusual because according to the life cycle effect, the democratic striving generation is supposed to show more interest. In reality, the DRG has been more actively involved than any other generation. This group`s involvement in politics is evident through its participation rate in past candlelight vigils (22.5 percent), which exceeds the new generation`s (15.7 percent), as well as the DSG`s (18.1 percent).
In terms of party support, independents are overwhelmingly supported (54 percent) across all generations. As expected, the older generation tends to show more support to the party in power, the Grand National Party. However, it is worthwhile to note that there is significant gap in support for the GNP between the DRG and DSG, even though they have traditionally been considered homogeneous. The DRG`s support rate (23 percent) is closer to that of the new generation`s (21 percent), than to that of the DSG (30 percent), and the war and industrialization generation (38 percent).
One point that deserves particular attention is that the highest rate of support for the opposition parties belongs to the DRG (23 percent), compared to the new generation (19 percent), DSG (17 percent), and the war/industrialization generation (13 percent). As evidenced in the 18th National Assembly elections, the DRG`s voting rate for opposition parties was, at 38 percent, the highest among all generations and exceeded that of the DSG by 10 percentage points.


Korean society, as a whole, is conservative as it values order above freedom and is opposed to economic aid for North Korea and the abolition of the National Security Act. However, its stance on such policies as the environment, welfare and the traditional role for women suggests that the nation is liberal, valuing equality over freedom.
The generational chasm varies from issue to issue. The life cycle effect comes into play in generational attitudes towards economic aid to North Korea and the role of women, whereas the political cohort effect appears in the democratization generation`s stance on political values and the abolition of the National Security Act. It is worthy of note that the democratization realization generation shows the most interest in politics and strongly supports opposition parties. This generation, mostly libertarian, takes on the role of a political minority in a society which highly values order and equality by seeking out political alternatives and by challenging the status quo.
However, of more significant note is the populist stance which highly values order and equality more than freedom - this is prevalent across all the generations. Koreans` high regard for social order indicates that democratization is still valued and therefore, its consolidation is believed to depend on law and order.
However, Koreans` demand for social order should not be confused with the totalitarian order under the authoritarian regime in the past. There`s a certain degree of truth that Koreans` demand for social order may be derived from the centralized political system, Confucian tradition, regimental education, and vestiges of industrialization.
The war/industrialization generation`s high regard for equality may reflect what the generation may have experienced; a relative materialistic deprivation, accompanied by a rapid economic boom. In comparison, the new generation also picks equality, which is strongly tied to human rights, as reflected in its strong support for economic aid to North Korea and vehement opposition to a traditional role for women.
Analysis indicates that ideological differences between generations clearly exist, but the chasm is not insurmountable. Conclusively, Korean society is homogenous, rather than heterogeneous. Homogeneity in democracy could become a stumbling block, as it would not allow political minorities to be heard and might also lead to a wide generational divide. The homogeneity in Korean politics might be responsible for Korea`s major political parties to lean toward conservatism. It is often pointed out that one party`s characteristic ideology and policymaking is not far from the other`s. Many citizens have become independents without a particular party they support. In consequence, party support has dwindled. This reality demands that parties are in need of a reality check in order for Korean party politics to take the next big leap into the future.

By Hwang Ah-ran

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