2040 Generation revolts against polarization
The Seoul mayoral election reconfirmed the signature national agenda that Koreans have already known but leaders have only either ignored or failed to recognize. It is a popular call for anti-polarization.
The governing party’s defeat is unsurprising as the Lee Myung-bak administration has been unable to narrow the widening polarization. The voters also distanced themselves from the opposition Democratic Party as it has also been a bystander over the yawning polarization. As an alternative, Seoulites picked the liberal civic-activist Park Won-soon as the mayor of the metropolitan area which accounts for 25 percent of all votes in Korea.
The latest by-election commands the characteristics of a revolt by the 2040 Generation. About 70 percent of those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, voted for Park.
Pollsters define the Oct. 26 by-election as the “Clash of Generations.” Different age groups vented their anger over the income gap for different reasons.
The 20-somethings wanted a savior in helping them find jobs and slash expensive college tuition. The 30-somethings revolted against a sudden surge in rent, job insecurity and burdensome child-rearing expenses. The 40-somethings were angry over falling house prices. Many of them borrowed heavily in the go-go property years of 2006 and 2007. They have become what Koreans call house poor, meaning owning a home but being poor as they must recycle the bulk of their earnings into repaying interest.
A post-election survey shows that the by-election was a popular judgment of the Lee government’s maladministration. In late 2007, voters went wild to vote for Lee out of the expectation that the former CEO of the Hyundai group would be a magician in stimulating the economy, creating more jobs, trimming the widening income polarization, reducing temporary workers and slashing household debt.
However, Lee became a victim of his own promises and popular expectation. The economy has become more polarized, with the rich becoming wealthier than before. More than 8 million are either non-regular or temporary workers.
The Korea Development Institute reported the youth jobless rate in Seoul was 21.2 percent under the International Labor Organization standard, more than four times the official rate of 4.8 percent in October. More than 1 million college graduates are unable to find work on top of an additional 1 million candidates studying in preparation for jobs. Quality of employment is also in serious question. Rents have risen by double-digit figures although home prices have fallen by about 20-30 percent from their peak.
Making them resentful is Lee’s favoritism toward conglomerates. Lee had falsely believed in the trickle-down effect. Namely once chaebol increase exports, this would stimulate the economy. Theoretically it means more jobs and consumer spending. The assumption was wide of the mark.
Lee said Monday he humbly accepted the by-election result, with promises of reflecting people’s wishes into policies next year.
The governing camp is completely disorientated following the election. No party and candidate have won the presidential election without winning in the Seoul mayoral race, and without the votes of those in their 40s and males in Seoul.
If past trends are any indication, the next president will not come from the ruling party. Recent multiple polls point to IT mogul Ahn Cheol-soo beating GNP candidate Park Geun-hye in a hypothetical election. Ahn has kept mum on his political ambition.
This cynicism toward the political parties of the Establishment has propelled the popularity of computer virus vaccine developer Ahn, who has no party affiliation. The 49-year-old is the darling of the social media networks, including Twitter, and Facebook. The so-called “digital natives,” referring to young people born after the dawning of the digital age, are enthusiastic fans, friends and followers of the nation’s 198th richest man.
If investors are wise, Ahn’s popularity will not subside anytime soon. Shares of his firm AhnLab have risen five-fold this year. This is attributable primarily to Ahn himself, not to its breakthrough technologies.
The older generation of “digital immigrants,” namely those people uncomfortable in using digital devices, is cynical over Ahn’s popularity.
They are skeptical of his qualification for the nation’s top job, with only experience in running a small company and a professorship. They expect Ahn’s popularity to sink if public euphoria turns into disappointment when he undergoes public scrutiny.
The digital natives, mostly liberal-minded young people, do not agree with the view of the digital immigrants, namely their conservative parents. Their argument smacks of generational warfare.
Few expect Lee to solve the polarization issue in the twilight of his presidency. Even the next president might have a Herculean task in an anti-polarization crusade and in meeting the tall expectations of the people. Without solving the polarization dilemma, Korea would be unable to realize social cohesion. An answer to this problem is a productive welfare policy, namely a market-oriented welfare program that does not strain the national coffers.
Lee Chang-sup is the chief editorial writer of The Korea Timers. His email address is email@example.com.