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[Feature] '90s-born generation drives changes in politics, workplace in Korea

As young workers join labor force, Korean society must change ways things are done

In Korea, understanding those born in the 1990s is all the rage now, as they enter the workforce and emerge as a powerful new voting bloc.

Shelves at major bookstores are filled with new hardbacks on the ‘90s-born -- an attempt to define and understand what they are like as voters, employees and consumers.

Even President Moon Jae-in recently presented Blue House staff with the bestselling book “‘90s Generation is Coming,” by Lim Hong-teak, saying, “We were all once young, but how much do we know about those in their 20s?” in a message.

In recent months, a series of social phenomena -- such as anger over 
alleged academic fraud involving Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s daughter -- have highlighted characteristics of those born in the ‘90s and changes they are bringing to Korean society.

While generalizing the entire group of those born in the 1990s -- who numbered 6.95 million as of 2018 -- is not easy, observers say they tend to share some distinctive traits as a group compared to previous generations: more individualistic, more expressive and more sensitive to unfairness.

Rage over unfairness, inequality

The seemingly endless cycle of competition -- from getting into a prestigious university to landing a job -- has led to the generation being more sensitive to fair competition and reacting strongly to preferential treatment enjoyed by the wealthy and powerful.

Students from Korea University demand the cancellation of Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s daughter’s admission into the university and his resignation during a rally, the fourth of its kind, on its main campus in northern Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)
Students from Korea University demand the cancellation of Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s daughter’s admission into the university and his resignation during a rally, the fourth of its kind, on its main campus in northern Seoul on Sunday. (Yonhap)

Most recently, the advantages Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s daughter and son enjoyed in polishing their university applications allegedly on the back of their parents’ networks and social status triggered outrage among the young, who poured into streets in protest.

“When I failed to get into a university I wanted to enter, it was unsatisfactory, but I thought those who made more efforts were accepted,” said Ha Ji-won, 25. “But I felt so angry that Cho’s daughter could have been accepted into a better university than I got into with much less qualifications and scores than I had, thanks to her parents’ connections.”

With technological advances, the gap in access to knowledge, culture and technologies has been narrowed, forcing people into tighter competition, according to a bestseller, “This Is Fairness -- Defined By Korean Millennials.”

“They cannot stand the fact that those who made less effort steal an opportunity or receive more benefits. They want the amount of effort made to be fairly evaluated,” said Park Won-ik, the book’s co-author.

What is unique about the situation facing Korean young adults are the cutthroat college admissions process and skyrocketing prices of real estate, which they cannot afford with just their income alone, he pointed out.

“As only one or two points determine who would get a place at a university or workplace, they become increasingly sensitive to fair competition,” he said.  “What they demand is a level playing field.”

When the conditions are similar and the same effort guarantees similar results, the circumstances of one’s birth often make a difference in one’s future prospects amid stiff competition and lack of upward mobility in Korean society.

In a 2017 Statistics Korea survey, 61.5 percent of some 10,000 people under 30 said the possibility of moving up the social ladder was low, compared to 46.8 percent in a 2013 survey.

Koreans thought the wealth gap was high (85.4 percent) and having a wealthy family background was important for success in life (80.8 percent), according to a survey of 3,873 adults by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs released in June. Some 57 percent of respondents said it would be unlikely to achieve higher social and economic status even if they made the effort.

How those born in the 1990s respond to the latest academic fraud scandal also shows how they become engaged in politics, observers say.

“They are more likely to respond to individual issues -- the Cho Kuk scandal and Sewol Ferry tragedy, for example,” said Jeong Sang-ho, a professor at Seowon University and author of “Birth of G-Generation.”

Those born in the ’90s are not tied to the traditional political ideologies of the right or the left, defined here largely by one’s attitude toward North Korea, he noted. Conservatives value the Korea-US alliance more than inter-Korean ties, while progressives prioritize improving cross-border relations.

Also, they comprise the generation that witnessed the ouster of a corruption-ridden president after monthslong candlelight rallies in 2016. 

“They are good at mobilizing themselves to express their opinions. They take action, such as holding demonstrations, rather than relying only on voting,” he said.

If the young can be seen as being indifferent to politics, that may be because no political party represents their interests.

“At university events, there are no candidates running for university student council elections. Even if an election is held, it often fails to meet the quorum. Student groups or school events are not as popular as before,” said Na Geum-chae, 21, who attends a university in Seoul.

“But we are just frustrated and disappointed,” he said. “This individualism arises from our sense of urgency to survive.

“And there is no political party or political force that I can relate to.”

Driving workplace changes

Those born before the ’90s are used to working long hours and attending alcohol-fueled after-work dinners with colleagues. Doing what they are told without question has been considered a virtue in this hierarchical workplace culture. It was not previously uncommon to devote one’s entire work life to a single company.
Copies of “’90s Generation is Coming” by Lim Hong-teak are displayed at Kyobo Bookstore in central Seoul. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)
Copies of “’90s Generation is Coming” by Lim Hong-teak are displayed at Kyobo Bookstore in central Seoul. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

However, Korean workplace culture is rapidly changing largely on the back of new 20-something employees, coupled with the 52-hour maximum workweek that went into effect in July.

Younger employees tend to put more priority on work-life balance, as well as focusing on fulfilling their potential and developing themselves through their work.

“I prefer to do what I want to do, not what I am told to do,” said Cho, who joined a local conglomerate in 2017. “My senior colleagues don’t call me out on that outright, but they appear to prefer people who work more for the interests of the team and the company.”

Also, younger workers tend to hop between jobs much more often in search of a better work environment.

“I am not loyal to this company, nor are my colleagues,” Cho said, adding four out of 20 people who were hired along with him had already left the company. “I am willing to leave the company when I feel I have learned enough here and want to further develop myself elsewhere.”

Employees stay 17.3 months at their first place of employment as of May this year, according to Statistics Korea.

Those in their 20s are seen as more individualistic.

“They go home early. They leave a dinner gathering early without caring about what senior colleagues would think. They don’t just do what they are told, and express their views a lot at the workplace,” said Seo Ji-hoon, 33, who works in human resources in Seoul.

The young are devoted to their own projects and careers, rather than their team or company, according to a managerial-level office worker, 44, who only wanted to be identified by her surname Cha.

“It seems like it is more important for them to get recognition and praise for their contributions,” she said. “They seem to be spending more on their hobbies, rather than saving up, and they don’t seem to think they should work for the same company for a long time.”

According to Lim’s book, those in their 20s don’t believe company loyalty translates to career progress, which is why they don’t mind changing workplaces to raise their future prospects. 

This might stem from what they have witnessed -- the 1997 Asian financial crisis and 2008 global financial crisis when people struggled to find a job and were at constant risk of losing a job.

Amid the lack of a social safety net, all they can trust is themselves, said co-author Park.

“When the economy grew fast, the previous generation was able to buy a car and a house with their income. They could also achieve their goal in life -- successfully supporting their family and life -- by committing themselves to the growth of their company and their country,” he said. “Now, the commitment does not guarantee that they will be able to achieve that goal.”
That’s why they think it is more reasonable to pursue a consumeristic lifestyle and enjoy the moment rather than sacrifice the present for the uncertain future, Park said, citing the popularity of phrases such as “You only live once” and “Small but certain happiness.”

“But when they find something they are interested in and passionate about, they are not afraid of dedicating themselves to it,” he said.