The ironies of South Korea’s “digital generation”

Posted on : 2013-03-19 11:19 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Young people lack trust in institutions while at the same time aspiring to careers in them

By Lee Soon-hyuk, staff reporter

The Baby Boomers were born between 1955 and 1964. The “386ers” from 1960 to 1970, Generation X from 1975 to 1984, the “880,000 won generation” from the late 1980s onward. . . .

When a name is given to a generation, it shows an understanding or body of research on the characteristic way of thinking or behaving that belongs specifically to that generation. Scholars use these classifications to study social change; companies use them for marketing. So what name could be given to the youngest generation of South Koreans today?

The Korea Information Society Development Institute (KISDI) recently published the findings of a study commissioned by the Korea Communications Commission. Titled “Comparison of the Thought and Behavioral Patterns of the Digital Generation and Its Predecessors,” it analyzes young South Koreans in terms of their being “digital” in character. The concept, which encompasses the entire cohort from their late teens to mid-30s who grew up amid the spread of the internet and the presidential election and World Cup fevers of 2002, reflects the members’ frequent use of smartphones and social media. According to the study, they showed a preference for economic utility over community. The report suggests a “dichotomous” attitude: strongly progressive but reluctant to vote, deeply interested in work but apathetic about macroeconomic trends.

This dichotomy was not only present in the younger generation. Most of those studies (1,500 people online, 200 through interviews) expressed pride in their country but negative attitudes about society in general. They were also both critical of and dependent on the country’s chaebol.

① What matters in life? For teenagers, money and power 

What is truly important in life? For the study, respondents were asked to rate 10 areas on a scale of five: family, friends, neighbors, work, leisure, money, power, academic achievement, health, and religion. Health and family came out on top, with averages of 4.66 and 4.52. After that came money (4.36) and work (4.00). Leisure and academic achievement were ranked around the middle at 3.95 and 3.41, respectively, while neighbors and religion came in last with marks of 3.22 and 2.49. The results suggest that South Koreans today care more about money and consumption than unity or psychological stability.

The trend was even more marked among younger people. On the importance of neighbors, respondents in their thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties and over respectively rated it 0.22 points, 0.39 points, 0.46 points, and 0.64 points higher than teenagers. Similarly, fortysomethings, fiftysomethings, and sixty-and-overs scored religion 0.34 points, 0.65 points, and 0.69 points higher than teenagers. In contrast, the younger respondents stood out for their preference for money and power. Teenagers rated money 0.31 points higher than those 60 and over, and power 0.32 points higher than those in their fifties. The findings suggest that seemingly uncorrupted young people possess more worldly values than their elders.

② Younger people apathetic about political, macroeconomic issues 

Another generation gap emerged in a survey on interest in ten major social issues. Participants were asked to rate their interest on a scale of four in domestic politics (parties, politicians, and elections), investment (stocks, real estate), economic trends (GDP, exchange rate, interest rates), employment, demographic issues (aging population, economic polarization, women’s issues), health (medical services, fitness, environmental issues), education (academic and professional training), culture and arts, leisure activities (travel, pastimes, sports), and fashion and trends. Respondents in their thirties and forties rated investment highest, while health came out on top for those fifty and over.

On macroeconomic trends such as exchange and interest rates, participants in their thirties to forties rated their interest an average of around 0.5 points higher than young people. But while the younger generation may be uninterested in economic activity, they are very keen on economic issues with a direct bearing on their lives, especially employment. In other words, they see jobs as important but are apathetic about the macroeconomic trends that control employment. The report referred to this as the “conflicting values of the Digital Generation.”

③ Trust in institutions, organizations at rock bottom 

Participants were also asked to rate their trust in nine institutions or organizations - the central government, the National Assembly, the courts, municipal governments, the military, political parties, labor unions, civic groups, and the media - on a scale of one to four. Civic groups, the military, and the media received relatively high marks, at 2.47 points, 2.40 points, and 2.16 points, respectively. Toward the middle were labor unions (2.14), the central government (2.13), the courts (2.07), and local governments (2.06). At the bottom were political parties and the National Assembly, which earned 1.76 points and 1.70 points, respectively - both lower than the two-point rating for “not especially trusted.” And while civic groups and the military fared better, they still fell short of the three-point rating for “somewhat trusted.” The results indicate high levels of distrust on the whole for nearly all national institutions and groups.

The ratings were even worse among younger respondents. Teenagers gave the central government trust ratings that of 0.44 points and 0.41 points, respectively, below what people in their fifties and sixties gave. For the courts, their ratings were 0.40 points and 0.35 points lower than the older segments, for the media, 0.34 points and 0.32 points. The report described these latter findings as “rather unusual in a social context where television announcer, producer, and reporter are popular professions among younger people.” They indicated yet another irony, where people show low ratings of respect for professions they personally aspire to.

④ Proud of their country, embarrassed by their society

When asked the question, “How proud are you of being a South Korean?” a combined total of 82.4% said they were “very proud” or “somewhat proud,” while just 16.6% said they did not feel proud. But attitudes toward South Korean society were mostly negative. Twenty-eight percent gave a low rating (one to three points out of ten) on “trust,” compared to just 9.2% giving a positive rating between eight and ten. Negative ratings also far outweighed positive ones for “consideration and tolerance” (39.2% to 4.6%) and “safety” (35.4% to 8.6%). “The country may have developed, but people feel that their own lives are more difficult,” the report concluded, calling this “characteristic of a growth-centered society.”

⑤ Critical of chaebol, but also reliant on them 

Respondents showed mixed attitudes on chaebol and large corporations, expressing critical views while also admitting to depending heavily on them. A total of 54.6% of respondents agreed with an item on the social issue questionnaire stating that the social side effects of large companies, including increasing inequality, outweighed their economic contribution. Only 8% disagreed.

Heavily critical attitudes toward chaebol were also evident in responses to a question about whether South Korean companies were obeying the law. Some 63.2% disagreed, compared to only 10.1% who agreed. But 49.1% also agreed that the national economy would “face crisis without chaebol,” more than twice as many as the 20.4% who disagreed. Similarly, 49.5% agreed that distribution of gains was only possible if economic growth came first, while just 15.9% disagreed.

⑥ Park Chung-hee, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun highly rated

In this generation’s assessment of former presidents, Park Chung-hee, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun received relatively high marks. In the category of contribution to economic development, two thirds of respondents (67.4%) gave Park the top score, with Roh (10.5%) and Kim (9.8%) trailing. In regard to Korea’s democratic development, Kim (36.6%) and Roh (32.6%) received the highest ratings, while Park (9.2%) was far behind. Most recent president Lee Myung-bak received less than 1% support both in terms of economic development and democratic growth.

⑦ The dominance of the three major newspapers (Chosun, JoongAng, Dong-A) loses its grip online

In a survey of what newspaper this generation prefers, the responses “none” (23.8%) and “I don’t read a paper” (17%) together accounted for more than 40%. Divided by media, the Chosun Ilbo took the lead with 14.8%, followed by the Hankyoreh at 11%, the JoongAng Ilbo at 9.6%, the Dong-A Ilbo at 8.4%, the Maeil Business News at 7.3%, and the Kyunghyang Shinmun at 6.1%.

44.6% of respondents said that they had no favorite online newspaper. This appears to result from the unique characteristic of online media, in which people tend to read the articles that pop up first or that catch their eye. Ranked by paper, the Chosun Ilbo was at 10.3%, the Hankyoreh at 8.8%, the Maeil Business News at 8.4%, the Kyunghyang Shinmun at 6.8%, the Dong-A Ilbo at 5.8%, and the JoongAng Ilbo at 5.5%.

 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

Related stories