No country’s culture is static. Many, even some scholars in the field, often make the mistake of referring to culture as if it were some monolithic constant that persists from one generation to the next. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take, for example, the culture of young Korean adults.
Joseon-era Korean culture was characterized by Confucian ideals: most notably, the emphasis on family. Filial piety and the willingness to sacrifice for one’s family were considered great virtues. Even today, many elderly Koreans adhere strictly to these beliefs, putting family before themselves.
Younger Korean adults, however, have steadily developed different priorities. One of the easiest ways to confirm this is by observing spending patterns. For the first time in Korean history, adults in their 30s have become the primary consumers of luxury brands. Last year, about 32 percent of all luxury brand dollars were spent by this group, compared to only 30.3 percent spent by adults in their 40s, the previous spending leader. Men in their 30s, in particular, have become big spenders, outspending women of the same age for the first time.
Vacations to foreign destinations are another place pronounced generational differences can be observed. For Korean adults in their 40s and 50s, the average age of their first overseas vacation is 31 and 40 years, respectively. For Korean adults in their 20s and 30s, this average is 21 and 26, demonstrating how foreign vacations have become an almost essential experience for the college-aged.
Restaurant visits are another interesting place to observe significant demographic differences. Only 19 percent of Korean adults between the ages of 50 and 64 eat out more than once per day, on average. By contrast, this same number is 48 percent and 35 percent, respectively, for Korean adults between the ages of 19-29 and 30-49. Here too, the data show younger generations are more likely to buy their way to convenience or personal enjoyment.
Luxury automobile ownership by men has also risen. In 2012, men in their 30s accounted for only 24.7 percent of all BMW purchases. Through to last year, this number has increased steadily to 31.4 percent. Concurrent with the prioritization of status has been a steady stagnation in the number of men in their 30s who own their own home. Currently, this number hovers at around 8 percent.
The desire to buy things for status, convenience, and enjoyment is, of course, one of the contributing factors to Korea’s chronic low marriage and birth rates. Despite repeated efforts by the government since the 1990s to subsidize families and children through tax credits and grants, birthrates remain at their lowest ever, at 1.05 births per woman last year. For men, not owning a home and living with parents is another contributing factor.
Simply put, young adults in Korea have become more self-oriented than their parents and ancestors. Notice I said “self-oriented” and not “self-centered.” It is not my intention to pass judgment. It is my intention instead to describe and characterize the change that has occurred. Young Koreans have changed a lot in their values, even though they technically belong to the same “Korean culture” as their forefathers.
Young Korean adults now value and prioritize things other than family. Although this change might make some Korean parents and grandparents feel sad or even betrayed, it is simply a progression in cultural evolution. As circumstances change, so too do the priorities of people who grow up within them. In this age of globalization, low wages, high expectations, and high debt, young adults feel the need to focus more on themselves. Whether we agree with it or not, can relate to it or not, that is what they are doing.
Justin Fendos is a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea and the associate director of the Tan School at Fudan University in Shanghai. -- Ed.