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A generation gap

Sept 28,2019
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College students and graduates of Seoul National University stage a candlelight vigil on Sept. 19 to urge Justice Minister Cho Kuk to step down over several scandals involving his relatives. [LIM HYUN-DONG]
Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer at the JoongAng Ilbo.

The controversy over Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who is being investigated along with his family for many seeming irregularities, may trigger a generational conflict. The blind defense of Cho by the liberal front has caused disillusionment among the so-called 386 generation, and has prompted people in their 20s to mount candlelight vigils. I may not be the only one who was dismayed by the JoongAng Ilbo series “Korea, the country of 386.” The 386 moniker was coined in the 1990s. It signified people in their 30s who attended university in the 1980s — the peak of the student democracy movement — and who were born in the 1960s under strongman Park Chung Hee. The term 386 also referred to the popular Intel 386 microprocessor.

The younger generation has the 386 generation in its cross-hairs — or, at least, the part of that generation that now forms the mainstream in our government, legislature and society in general. The people of that generation are accused of being hypocrites.

I’d like to protest on two grounds.

First of all, the student activists of the 386 generation are not synonymous with all Koreans now in their 50s. Sociologist Karl Mannheim claimed a collective response to a traumatic or sociohistorical event between the ages of 17 and 25 can last a lifetime, transforming a generation into a kind of cohort. The 386 generation grew up under military regimes and experienced the transition to democracy through civilian uprisings. Just 30 percent of people in the 1960s went to college. Many people born in 1960 were not involved in the student democracy movements. Even on the campuses at the time, not all students were activists. Some people from that generation went on to become lawmakers, senior executives or influential artists. But the bulk are depressed, middle-aged ordinary folk worrying about post-retirement while supporting children who cannot find jobs after graduation. The hypocrites do not represent the entire 386 generation.

The second question is whether public fury should be directed at a generation or the dominant values of that age or group. A generation shares common experiences. But when the generation and its values are considered indivisible, public rage can cause unproductive generational conflict. The 386 generation is being sneered at by the young. But blind rage cannot change anything. Those born in the 1960s number 8.6 million, the largest group for any 10-year span. Their voices are inevitably louder. The young should be a little patient if they are displeased with them as their voices will soften when they turn 60 and 70. A generation moves on, although its values may not. If the younger generation chooses to cast away the outdated ways of an earlier generation while holding up certain positive legacies, some lessons can be learned.

What lies at the heart of the controversy around the 386 generation is economics. Demographically, politically and economically, it has the upper hand. It lived through the heyday of the Korean economy, which thrived until the mid-1990s on low oil prices and interest rates. Jobs were secure after graduation and so were family lives and aspirations. The majority bore a collective indebtedness to its student activist peers, who had devoted their youth to fighting for democracy and helped to bring about freedom. After the growth slowed and wealth became uneven, generational conflict began to arise.

People in their 20s and 30s are not blessed with the same opportunities. Should the blame entirely go to the 386 generation? Society must work toward a generational balance, which cannot be attained through a contest. The task will not be easy as the economy is structurally challenged. Politics have worsened the problem by glorifying poor policies presented as virtuous or just. The wasteful contest may go on as long as some in the mainstream 386 generation press on with this perverse sense of virtue.

JoongAng Ilbo, Sept. 27, Page 30