Generation Gap

Korea is imploding. Traditionally ordered by Confucian values such as filial piety, the culture suffers daily with breakdowns in this traditional, assumed ordering of Korea. Social issues have emerged that no one wants to talk about: teen pregnancy, bullying, juvenile delinquency, abuse, psychological distress and alienation from divorce, societal peer pressure on looking the part when inside you are falling apart. These issues are difficult parts of life everywhere. But most countries have developed social systems, usually supported by government or religious organizations, to help support families and individuals. Sure, the internet provides another way for people who are not main stream to find groups of support. In Korea, are the different generations finding these solutions? Traditional Korean values are like a Ponzi scheme gone bad. So which generation is going to bear the brunt when this pyramid scheme unravels?

Traditionally the elderly are taken care of by their children or grandchildren. These days instead, you see grandparents taking care of their children and grandchildren. You see adult children still being supported financially by parents. You see adult women in their 30s who are unmarried still living at home. You see grandparents as the primary care giver to their grandchildren. None of these are necessarily bad things, but these changes are based on the economic stability of families. This burden of responsibility for financial stability lies with older generations because often the mantra they were singing to their children “Don’t do manual labor like I had to. Study hard, that will get you a good job” turned out to be empty advice. Very often well-educated 20 and 30 somethings are unable to get a reliable job based on their credentials alone. When it comes to safe employment positions, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And this is where the older generation is failing the younger generation.

Often the older generations have no social capital (I use this term in the Western sense, not the Korean sense of putting money in the pot for a friend’s kid’s marriage or other social finance obligations) to get their kids or grandkids decent jobs. There is no bridge to the right social circles for the working class or middle class to extend to their progeny for a better living. At least in Jeolla and Gwangju this seems to be true. Families who are already enfranchised and empowered by the social hierarchy that has trickled down from the old feudal days and the colonialism apologists are the ones that have the social networks required to provide financial security to their children and grandchildren. So what happens to the families that don’t have the connections to get ahead?

Poverty, shame, alienation. When you see an elderly poor person whom no one is caring for, who is responsible for the safety and care of that person? Are they responsible for themselves? Is their family responsible? Is the government?  Korea has one of the highest rates of elderly poor in the world. But this is not the only social problem that has emerged from the rapid industrialization in Korea. You also see middle school students skipping class and drinking alcohol at the local PC Bang or game arcade. You see suicide rates of men in their 30s rising. You see major mid life crisis of men occurring in their late 20s after they’ve finished military, finished university and still can’t find a responsible job to show that they are a good husband choice. You see single adult women buying their own homes to live in by themselves, yet still being harangued by society and family for being too independent.

This mish mash morass of conflicting and cross stitched culture is today’s Korea. Historical influences still push traditional Confucian culture on today’s Koreans. Old sentiments such as a man is not a man unless he is married, or women are too weak to care for themselves, or children must be provided for regardless of their age get mixed in with a modern civilization mood that is characterized by a double income family with kids who are taken care of by grandparents, where divorce is a common option in the race towards happiness, and where youth manipulate the trust extended to them by parents and society to exert their independent nature.

So what are today’s Korean values? I know a lot about ideal Korean culture. But what are the real Korean values that people are basing their behaviors on today?

America’s ideal culture states that independence and self-reliance are most important. Yet many people in America still believe that men are more independent than women. And while Americans may be self-reliant, an emerging sense of interdependency and the young generation’s reliance on their parents’ helicopter protection is a common occurrence.  With a similar mixed message of values and culture here in Korea, I am curious as to how Korea will deal with all the embarrassing, shaming social problems without resorting to face saving techniques. It’s time to talk honestly and sensitively about these issues, without causing further pain and shame to larger and larger segments of society that no longer fit into the traditional Korean mold.


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