Back To Top

[Robert J. Fouser] Millennial generation and Korea

If years had buzzwords, the one for 2015 in the U.S. would sure be “Millennial.” The news is full of stories about what the Millennial Generation likes and doesn’t like and how they are beginning to make their mark on society as move toward middle age. They are said to prefer urban areas over the suburban areas they grew up in. They are said to prefer sharing and renting over ownership. As the first generation to grow up with the Internet, they are said to prefer online communication over face-to-face communication. The list goes on.

The boundaries of a generation are vague, but authors William Strauss and Neil Howe, authors of the seminal 1991 book “Generations,” invented the term “Millennial” to describe the generation born between 1982 and 2004. The book offers interesting insight into this emerging generation.

In the book, Strauss and Howe found a recurring cycle of generations. Each cycle consists of four stages that last about 20 years, and the full cycle repeats every 80 to 90 years. Each generation experiences all four stages, but the character of a generation is formed in childhood and young adulthood. This creates four generational types: Prophet, Nomad, Hero and Artist.

Prophet generations are born during a time of strong consensus around a new social order and are idealistic in their crusade for change in their youth. Nomad generations are born in an era of social change and come of age as alienated and reactive adults. Hero generations come of age as team-oriented young optimists during an era of crisis and civically engaged. Artist generations are born during a time of crisis and come of age as conformist young adults.

These four types of generations can be grouped into two types that alternate over time: dominant and recessive. Dominant generations are confident and define the era in which they live; recessive generations are less confident. Prophet and hero generations are dominant, whereas nomad and artist generations are recessive.

Among the post-World War II generations, the Millennial Generation is a hero generation that came of age in the post-9/11 world and during the Great Recession of 2008. The previous hero generation was the G.I. Generation that came of age during the Great Depression and World War II. This generation formed the core of the “establishment” that subsequent prophet Baby Boom Generation attacked in the 1960s. Every president elected from 1960 to 1988 was from the G.I. Generation.

Another interesting example of a hero generation is the Republican Generation born between 1742 and 1766. This generation produced the Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, key figures in drafting the U.S. Constitution, and every president elected from 1800 to 1820.

If history repeats itself, then the Millennial Generation will soon take the lead and create a strong social consensus. Like previous hero generations, they will create a new paradigm that will remake much of society. The Millennial Generation’s support for same-sex marriage, for example, caused a rapid increase in support for making it legal.

What does this mean for Korea? Relations between Korea and the United States are still defined by the Cold War that fought by previous hero generation. Subsequent generations has questioned the paradigm of the U.S. military involvement overseas, but they have not had the focus or power to change the paradigm. The prophet Baby Boom Generation fought against U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but turned its idealism to other issues after the war ended. The nomad Generation X is adverse to the use of U.S. power, but does not have the confidence to change the paradigm.

The same holds true for the system of free trade that has allowed Korea to develop into an export powerhouse. The Baby Boom Generation and Generation X have supported free trade and, at times, have been energetic supporters of globalization and the neoliberal ideas behind it.

The Millennial Generation is still young, but shows signs of wanting to move in a different direction. Millennials are less patriotic than previous generations and support the notion of “American exceptionalism” less. They are more ethnically diverse than any previous generation and do not view the world as us-versus-them. They are suspicious of globalization and corporate power.

Most opinion makers in Korea know little about what Millennials think and have not yet considered their potential to influence the future direction of relations between Korea and the U.S. Change is coming and leaders need to be ready to protect Korea’s national interest when the generational plates shift. 

By Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Ann Arbor, Michigan. -- Ed.