Faced with uncertain prospects birthed by the worldwide trend of the jobless economic recovery, the young people of Korea have redefined themselves as a politically and socially potent demographic. A 2010 opinion poll conducted by the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism of 1000 young people in their 20s found that the primary issue of concern among respondents was employment.
Following with these developments, the term “2040 generation” has emerged not only as a buzzword in Korean media and social commentary but also a theme of contemporary culture. The unprecedented turnout of “2040” voters in the recent 2011 Seoul mayoral election, in particular, was seen as an effort by younger generations to engage the wider society in a much-needed dialogue on their needs. At the same time, books, dramas, and movies depicting the struggles and dreams of young Koreans in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, continue to attract a wide audience of viewers and readers..
The 2040 generation, which refers to young people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, is emerging as a significant political, social and cultural demographic in Korea today (Photo: Weekly Gonggam).
The 880,000 Won Generation, an economic critique published in August 2007, sold a record 25,000 copies within months of publication and launched the self-help and self-improvement book boom in Korea. The book, titled after the average relative pay rate that individuals in their 20s were estimated to receive in 2007, traced the economic and social history of the decade following the financial crisis. Its analysis focused on the widening generation gaps and structural inequalities that have made for the socioeconomic challenges faced by twentysomethings today.
“Our time is short, but it is not too late,” wrote Woo Seuk-hoon, the author of The 880 Thousand Won Generation. “Now is the best time to free ourselves from the mire, from the pull, of ‘winner-takes-all.’ Now is our chance to act, and for whom? For our youths? It may appear so, but as we may suspect and soon discover, the changes will be for all of us and our shared future.”
The present reality of Korea’s younger generations has also played out on film and television.
The popular 2010 romantic comedy My Dear Desperado paired a provincial university graduate preparing for employment with a small-time gangster. Sae-jin, played by Jeong Yumi, having graduated with top honors in data processing and successfully completed her master’s degree, comes to Seoul to find a job that will make good use of her professional skills. Nevertheless, she soon finds that a degree from a provincial university lacks the minimal name brand value esteemed by potential employers. With few interview opportunities, Sae-jin settles into a lifestyle of part-time jobs and monthly rent in a semi-basement one-room, and together with neighbor Dong-chul, played by Park Jung-hun, she seeks her own way in the big city.
Third-rate gangster Dong-chul (left, played by Park Jung-hun) and provincial university graduate Sae-jin (center, played by Jung Yu-mi) are neighbors seeking to make a life for themselves in Seoul in the film My Dear Desperado. In the drama series Protect the Boss, No Eun-seul (second to right, played by Choi Kang-hee) agrees to work as a secretary and bodyguard to Cha Ji-heon (far right, played by Ji Sung) on the condition that she receive official status as a regular employee (Photo: Gonggam Weekly).
In the SBS drama Protect the Boss, No Eun-seul, played by actress Choi Kang-hee, also hails from a provincial university outside of Seoul. After a series of twists and turns working a racket of temporary jobs to make her rent and pay back tuition loans, Eun-seul is recruited as a secretary, bodyguard, and all-around girl Friday to the immature youngest son of a corporation owner. The best part of her compensation is the official certificate identifying her as a regular employee.
MBC sitcom Highkick! The Revenge of the Shortlegged features a similar situation. Actress Baek Jin-hee plays a plucky heroine of the same name, who keeps herself busy at various part-time jobs to keep up with her loan repayment but finds herself at a loss after a plan to lease her own place falls through. While the slapstick genre makes for some exaggerated plot developments and scenarios, viewers can sympathize with the “real-life” difficulties and triumphs that Jin-hee experiences.
The heroine in Scent of a Woman, which ran on SBS in 2010, finds herself at a different stage of life than young Jin-hee, but her struggles attest both to similarly deferred dreams and a similarly forged resilience. Lee Yeon-jae, played by Kim Sun-ah, had it relatively easy when she was hired with a high-school education as an employee at a travel agency. But after ten years of making the best of the less-than-satisfactory working conditions and treatment by her boss, Yeon-jae receives a notice of dismissal. For the first time since she was hired, she gives voice to her aches, as she implores her boss for just a little more trust, a little more respect, and a little more care.
Among the bestsellers currently up for selection as the best books of 2011 by various online book retailers such as Interpark Books and Yes24, several rose to popularity on account of their direct, relevant, and even compassionate message about the issues and attitudes of younger generations.
Michael Sandel’s Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? is based on the Harvard professor of political philosophy’s popular lecture series. Since its release in 2010, the book has sparked conversations in Korea on the relationship between rights and justice and the meaning of morality in government, economics, and other sectors of society. Having sold over a million copies in Korea, Justice and the questions it poses have resonated with and fostered a deep cross-generational interest in the topic.
The ten books written by Alain de Botton, who has been dubbed “the philosopher of our daily life,” have also sold more than a million copies in Korea, which has the largest readership for Botton’s work outside of his native England. Among his bestsellers, the popular Status Anxiety explores why people care about status and how the drive to compare and envy can be harnessed for productive and positive means.
We Call It Youth Because It Hurts, written by Seoul National University professor Kim Nan-do, has sold over a million copies since its publication and remained at the top of national bestseller lists for 20 weeks. A collection of practical counsel and encouragement written for young people struggling with their uncertain futures, the book builds on the belief that such worries and longings afford a value to youth that cannot be found anywhere else.
While themes of intergenerational conflict continue to appear in the media, a steady wave of books and films has drawn attention to the idea of social progress as a sometimes bumpy and often trial-ridden path that yields particular pains and joys within and across generations. In a recent interview with Weekly Gonggam, Ham In-hee, a professor of sociology at Ewha Womans University, put it this way: “In our present situation, it is important to define the relationships among generations not by conflict and confrontation but by cooperation. Seeking out the wisdom of harmonious coexistence, of life lived together, will require all of our combined energies.”