Throughout human history, there has always been a generation gap between the young and old. In the eyes of the old, young people are frolicsome and reckless, and do not want to learn from the past. In the eyes of the young, older people are hopelessly stubborn and conservative; constantly nagging about war, past poverty, and those turbulent days when they were young. “Which war?” Young people want to yell back, “Don’t you know those things are no longer our concern?” That was why Robert A. Heinlein warned, “A generation which ignores history has no past—and no future.” At the same time, the old generation is often a bitter disappointment as well. That was why Bertrand Russell pointed out, “The young, no doubt, make mistakes; but the old, when they try to think for them, make even greater mistakes.”
What is happening in today’s Korean society is not simply a generation gap. It is really more of a generation gulf or a “generation Grand Canyon,” as activist Mary Brave Bird once put it. The gorge that separates the young and old in today’s Korea is so deep and wide that it almost does not seem possible to reconcile or bridge it. For example, the young find the wrinkled, conservative Taegeukgi protesters hopelessly pathetic and embarrassing. Meanwhile, the old find young people unbearably frivolous because they vote for a president or National Assembly representative simply because they are good-looking.
Regrettably, South Korea is already torn by mutually exclusive political ideologies that are so extreme that it is tantamount to a civil war these days. In a typical Korean home, one finds that parents and children deliberately avoid any conversation about politics. They know if they broach the subject, they will immediately be engaged in a severe verbal fight and become archenemies in these times. Under the circumstances, we cannot afford another war between the generations.
Nevertheless, when either the young or the old find the other despicable, they do not realize their own flaws and faults. Yasuo Sasaki, whose profound insight into Korean society I admire very much, recently wrote to me, “I remember my grandparents saying, don’t laugh at elders, you’ll be there, don’t scold the young, you were there.” Indeed, we should seek reconciliation instead of exhibiting hate and abomination toward each other. There should be some way to bridge the seemingly unfathomable chasm between the young and old.
Perhaps we have failed in our education, both at home and at school. At home, parents have spoiled their kids, permitting virtually everything to their children as long as they study hard enough to enter a university. Korean parents seldom ground their children as a disciplinary measure, and the same is true at school. Moreover, our secondary school textbooks and teachers largely fail to teach our young students to love and care about others. To make matters worse, students no longer seem to respect their teachers in Korea these days
While I was in Spain, I often spoke with Spanish students about generational differences. To my surprise, they were eager to learn what happened in the past from their parents and spent so much time with their grandparents. Also, despite the tough job market in Spain, I noticed that Spanish students did not blame older people or their society.
Now I am conversing with American students and equally impressed by their eagerness to learn about the past and their respect for the older people. Undoubtedly, even in American society, generation gaps between the baby boomers, Generation X and millennials exists. Unlike Koreans, however, they do not hate each other. In the states, too, it is not easy to get a job these days, and yet I have seldom seen severely depressed students even in the School of Humanities. They told me, “We believe the humanities is very important because it teaches us how to live in a worthwhile way.” Then they continued, “We know the job market is not so rosy. But we do not despair. We’ll try and do our best.”
Of course, In Korea, too, there are good young people who do not simply blame or hate the old generation for their predicament and who instead do their best to accomplish their goals. However, when I see indecent, derogatory remarks against older people that dismiss them as if they were the ashes of a smoked-out cigar, as Anthony Trollope laments, I cannot but despair.
Perhaps older people in Korea should realize that their days are over now. Watching the advent of the era of new mutants, the old generation should lament, “I am legend!” and fade away, as Richard Matheson suggested in his monumental novel with the same title that came out when America was sharply torn between McCarthyism and Marxism.
Still, however, I cannot dismiss what the departed King Hussein of Jordan said: “It is my firm belief that I have a link with the past and a responsibility to the future. I cannot give up. I cannot despair. There’s a whole future, generations to come. I have to keep trying.”
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting professor at the University of California, Irvine. -- Ed.