[Column] For Korea’s ‘90s kids, uncertainty has become anxiety

Posted on : 2022-02-18 17:37 KST Modified on : 2022-02-18 17:37 KST
What we want to be assured of is not such specifics of how we would be living, but whether we would be promised a life worth living regardless of who we choose to spend our lives with
Kang Dohee and Choi Yeon-jin
Kang Dohee and Choi Yeon-jin

By Kang Dohee and Choi Yeon-jin, graduate students in Korean Language and Literature

There are only three weeks left until the South Korean presidential election. We can sense the atmosphere has shifted when we talk to our friends about the upcoming event. They seemed indifferent only a short time ago, saying they wouldn’t like the outcome no matter who won, but now, they seem quite serious, having thought about how that someone would be affecting their daily lives. The apprehensiveness feels even more poignant when you think about those candidates who deny the existence of structural sexism in order to win votes, who willfully refuse to come up with policies for women’s safety.

Young Koreans in their 20s and 30s who were born in the ‘90s are up against the most precarious future out of all generations. To rephrase this, they are a generation with a peculiar sensibility regarding the uncertainty of the future.

Of course, nobody can be sure of the coming times in advance. Sure, one can make predictions about when the pandemic would end, whether the next administration would lower or raise real estate prices in Seoul, whether carbon neutrality would be achieved by 2050 — but no one can be positive of those predictions. Yet, while some are still able to look forward to the uncertain future and await whatever may come their way, others can’t help but feel anxious because of the uncertainty and feel compelled to do something to prepare in the now.

The older generation would dub this difference as stemming from the ability to predict what’s coming based on accumulated experiences. It’s natural that the longer you’ve lived, the more data you’ve gathered during that time, and the more patterns you identify within those data points. This would more often be the case for people who’ve had lifelong careers in traditionally high-income professional fields made up of professors, legal professionals, corporate executives and other similar jobs.

But something important to note is that regardless of the differences in gathered experiential data, the future young Koreans face is not the kind that can be forecasted with existing data.

For real estate prices to stabilize, one needs the assurance that they wouldn’t rise by too much in 10, 20 years, that it would be okay to buy real estate later. But that can’t be further from reality. Instead, the belief that real estate prices rise no matter what has spread under neoliberalism, triggering panic buying from the wealthy, keeping young Koreans living in monthly and yearly rentals at arm’s length from making housing plans for the future. For them, even the relatively immediate future of two years from now is unpredictable depending on how much their landlord plans to raise their rent.

The same goes for the labor environment. Nobody works 120 hours a week in the present in order to kick back in retirement anymore. For young workers whose New Year’s resolution is to quit or change jobs for reasons such as low wages, unstable employment and low prospects, retirement — whether it comes at age 60 or 65 — is a world apart. It’s not just that retirement is a distant future, but that there’s no guarantee that one would still be alive then in the real sense of the word.

The most effective way to make one’s future predictable in South Korea is to become a parent, as it’s a reiteration of the familiar past and a way to secure one’s remaining future at the very minimum. But, considering only 40.8% of single men and 22.4% of single women regard marriage as compulsory, there’s really no point in envisioning who you would spend your middle to old age with — whether young or old, woman or man, animal or plant.

What we want to be assured of is not such specifics of how we would be living, but whether we would be promised a life worth living regardless of who we choose to spend our lives with. The gap in emergency medical resources between the greater Seoul area and everywhere else is widening with time, and at this rate, the national pension will be exhausted by the time people born in 1992 are old enough to be its recipients.

Earth is getting hotter and hotter, and according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, large-scale droughts and torrential rain will double if the planet’s average temperature increases by 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040. On the Korean Peninsula, which has seen faster increases in temperatures than the global average, heatwaves and tropical nights may last a whole month during the summer. Islands we hope to travel to may disappear, and we may no longer be able to drink coffee or wine.

If you consider the average age and social class of presidential candidates, it’s evident that there aren’t many of them in the position to understand such anxieties. But if that’s the case, shouldn’t they at least keep those in anxiety close and try to empathize? Witnessing the older generation dubbing the younger generation’s anxious “There is no future” attitude as worldly ignorance or survivalism, and mistaking their optimistic “Everything gets better in the future” attitude as intellectualism or transcendence from worldliness, makes us even more anxious. That’s because when prediction becomes conviction, variables themselves or those who point out those variables quickly become villainized.

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

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