When South Korea’s youth self-mockingly called themselves “The 880,000 Won Generation,” referring to their monthly pay, their hard luck was often thought to have stemmed from the country’s low growth. However, this is not the case according to a thesis recently published by Lee Cheol-sung, Professor of Department of Sociology at Sogang University. In the paper “Generation, Class, and Hierarchy: 386-Generation in Power and Increase in Inequality,” Lee analyzed that the so-called 386 generation has accumulated too much power and wealth for too long, having an adverse effect on the younger generation.
Lee’ analysis that the 386ers have enjoyed longer years at firms, and higher income growth rates and income levels, widening a gap with other generations, is noteworthy. The competitiveness of the 386ers is their organizational power. While the earlier generation was obsessed with personal connections based on regionalism and school ties, the 386ers could band together for the sole purpose of democratization. Since the 1990s, tens of thousands of civic groups have been created, and the number of groups joined by an individual of the generation of democratization (according to a survey of college graduates in 2010) was 0.451, larger than that of those in the 1950s (0.209), 1970s (0.331), and 1980s (0.185).
The organizational power refined during the process of democratization turned out to be an unexpected resource for the generation to help them seize political authority and serve their interests. The 386ers survived the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and it was a matter of luck. Yet, the position of regular workers and higher income growth rates that ensued should be attributed to the generation’s fighting power. Instead, the following generation had to pay a price for that, when firms started to respond to rising labor costs by moving production facilities overseas, expanding non-regular workers, and cutting unit prices of subcontractors. The ratio of those in their 50s among the executives of the top 100 companies usually stays at around 60 percent, but the figure rose over 70 percent in 2017. “This is because firms tend to hire people of similar age with politicians to be in their good books,” Lee said.
Some experts have put forth counterarguments. Shin Kwang-yeong, sociology professor at Chung-Ang University, said that an increase in inequality is an issue of class, not of generation. “An argument that the 386ers are the winner of a generational competition is overstated, and given their burden to provide for family, they are rather a ‘trapped generation,’” said Kim Su-jeong, social welfare professor at Dong-A University. Some analyze that the generation found themselves in luck’s way as they had inherited a productive market from the earlier generation, outlasted the Asian financial crisis, and enjoyed the dot-com bubble in the 2000s.
If it’s sheer luck that made the good times for the 386 generation, then don’t they have any responsibility for the next unlucky generation? The country’s young people are more educated than ever before, but are suffering from a stiff employment cliff. If they fail to land a job first, it’s more likely that they’ll face a tougher road ahead (due to what’s known as a scarring effect). There are clear reasons behind falling marriage rates and birth rates.
Rather than a one-time measure to provide the youth with cash, generational solidarity is needed so that decent jobs can be created and shared. The main character of the film “Ode to My Father,” who represents the generation of industrialization, said that “What a relief that we’ve gone through this hardship, not our children.” As such, the 386 generation should have the sense of responsibility upon realization that they alone enjoyed the luck. Otherwise, as Lee said, they may have to find themselves with power but without grandchildren.
Si-Uk Nam @donga.com