Korea’s yawning generation gap

By Korea Herald

Election lays bare clash of old and young

  • Published : Jan 1, 2013 - 20:38
  • Updated : Jan 1, 2013 - 20:39

Park Ji-soo vividly remembers the subway ride to her university on the morning of Dec. 20, 2012, the day after Korea elected Park Geun-hye president.

“I looked around. More than half of the passengers looked over 50 years old. I thought to myself that these are the people who chose a dictator’s daughter to be president over a human rights fighter who happened to be smarter and better versed in all areas,” the 25-year-old graduate student in Seoul said, her voice still tinged with bitterness.

Like many others around her age, she had voted for Moon Jae-in, Park’s rival from the liberal opposition Democratic United Party.

“It felt as if you realize that what’s in front of you and stopping you from moving forward is an insurmountable wall,” said the disgruntled student.

Among those she likened to the “wall” would be Kim Seong-ik, a 54-year-old former teacher who runs a private tutoring school in Yongin, south of Seoul. He had few kind words for Moon and his supporters.

“Kids think they know better than us, but they don’t know anything about politics, history or this country,” he said. “If older generations didn’t stop them (from making Moon president,) this country would have fallen into great confusion.”

For him, the controversial family background of Park Geun-hye, the candidate from the ruling Saenuri Party, was one reason to vote for her. Her father ― former president Park Chung-hee ― spearheaded the country’s rapid rise from acute post-war poverty, an achievement that no other Korean leader came anywhere close to making. 
Seoulites shout their New Year’s wishes at a pavilion on Namsan in central Seoul on Tuesday. (Lee Sang-sub/The Korea Herald)

Listen to the two closely and at least one thing becomes clear: A division exists in Korea between two groups ― the young and the old.

For a long time, the country’s political conservation focused on a geographical political divide ― the liberal west and conservative east. The latest election, however, revealed that a deeper split is engulfing the nation, as its economy slows with a rapidly-aging population.

The Dec. 19 presidential election was a showdown of generations, with younger voters standing behind Moon and older ones supporting Park, said Shin Kwang-young, a sociology professor at ChungAng University in Seoul.

“What was previously perceived as a generation gap that exists in every society has, after the election, emerged as a major source of concern in Korea,” he said.

A look at exit poll results shows where the dividing line was.

While over 65 percent of voters in their 20s and 30s supported Moon, those in their 50s and older overwhelmingly chose Park. The conservative candidate drew 62.5 percent of votes from the 50-somethings and 72.3 percent from those aged sixty and over. The results of the clash between those in their 20s and 30s and the over-50s ended in the victory of the latter who, for the first time in a presidential election, outnumbered the former.

The acrimony is still fresh and raw even after the election.

In cyberspace, young people have done little to hide their negative feelings toward the older generations.

“I recently learnt that our seniors perceive a welfare state as something close to a communist state. Since it is clear that they don’t want universal welfare, please scrap the subway free ride program for the elderly passengers,” a netizen wrote in an online petition posted on portal site

The petition garnered signatures from more than 10,000 users in less than two days.

Similar petitions followed, asking the government to scrap welfare programs for the elderly.

“It is heartbreaking to see how the election has pitted the two generations ― the aging parents and their grown-up children up against each other,” Prime Minister Kim Hwang-sik said after the election.

“I fear this may take a long time to heal, because we are not good at communicating with each other.”

For many senior voters, Park Geun-hye, now the president-elect, has never been an ordinary politician. She lost both of her parents to the bullet and has no family of her own. Like she said, her career in politics and running in the presidential election has had only one goal ― to serve the country her father “built.”

People in their 20s and 30s share no such feelings for Park and her father.

They came of age when Korea had already escaped poverty and was regarded as a shining example of democracy in Asia. For them, Moon represented a switch from an economic growth obsession to a welfare state and the enhancement of individual rights.

“It turned out that senior votes were the deciding factor in the election,” Shin said. For many young Moon supporters, it must have felt as if their dreams were crushed by their elders, he explained.

Woo Seok-hoon, who in his book “the 880,000 won generation” described the 20-somethings as such, says generational conflicts will become a major challenge for Korea as its population ages rapidly.

“Now it seems like just an emotional conflict between the frustrated young generations and the old over the election results. But that will change sometime soon,” he said.

With resources that the country can spend on welfare limited, the two generations will clash over for whom to use them, he added.

Because of the country’s low birth rate and extended life expectancy, seniors will grow in numbers and become a more important electoral bloc, although the burden of welfare will mainly fall on the younger people.

“The demographic makeup of the electorate is changing in line with the aging population. While the bloc of the 20s and 30s is thinning, that of the over-50s is thickening, creating a situation where older generations can decide what the future should be like for the younger generations regardless of their opinion,” said Jeon Sang-jin, a professor at Sogang University. “One way to fix this is to lower the voting age.”

By Lee Sun-young (