South Koreans in the Millennial and “Gen Z” generations who are struggling to find their footing in an uncertain economy may be turning to the country’s political parties for answers.
The election of 36-year-old politician Lee Jun-seok as leader of the main opposition People Power Party focuses attention on younger voters.
According to Seoul’s National Statistical Office, the unemployment rate for South Koreans under 30 has been in the double digits for years. Meanwhile, thirty-something South Koreans are increasingly leaving the labour force – though the data could reflect the economic fallout from COVID-19.
After years of frustration, Shin In-kyu, 35, a lawyer in private practise in Seoul, told UPI that his generation feels lost.
President Moon Jae-in, a progressive, promised to reduce unemployment and increase job security during his 2017 campaign. However, “getting hired is difficult and jobs are scarce” at a time when “Korea’s growth momentum has vanished,” according to Shin.
South Korea’s mature postindustrial economy already was struggling, but the policies of the Moon administration made things worse, the lawyer said.
Economic policies driving discontent
Last year, the president vowed to rein in skyrocketing home prices and approved heavier taxes on multiple homeowners, hoping the policy would increase supply. The plan backfired and only led to panic buying in the market and higher prices.
The administration “crushed the dreams of young people” left with no choice but to postpone plans, including marriage and family, according to Shin.
Dissatisfied with domestic politics, Shin applied to become a spokesperson for the main opposition party. Nearly 150 South Koreans from all walks of life, including a high school student, had applied through a competitive interview process.
The 16 semifinalists endured several rounds of public debates that streamed live on YouTube. Shin, who reached the final round, was selected to be a spokesperson for six months, along with three other finalists.
The selection process, branded “Debate Battle,” was the brainchild of Harvard-educated Lee, a newcomer to the national stage. People watching the debates also could cast votes for the candidates.
Shin said the tough competitive process was defined by “fairness,” a buzzword that has gained traction among younger South Koreans disillusioned with recent political scandals, including allegations of fake academic credentials involving the daughter of ex-Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a former Moon aide.
While South Korean media has reported that men in their 20s and 30s are turning out to support Korea’s traditional conservatives, Jang Seung-jin, a political science professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, believes the reports are not conclusive.
While exit polls conducted by South Korean broadcasters show that more than 70% of South Korean men in their 20s voted for conservative candidate Oh Se-hoon in a Seoul mayoral by-election in April, Jang told UPI that the exit poll does not reflect early voting results.
“However, it can be said that voters in their 20s and 30s are relatively free from the ideological conflicts of traditional Korean politics, compared to voters in their 50s or older,” Jang said.
“Many people [also] agree that a large part of the reason young voters are critical of the current administration is that they are not achieving economic results, including in the area of employment.”
Uncertain futures shaping political outlook
For South Koreans who have witnessed their country transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, the millennial generation and Gen Z are too quick to change political stripes if they are unhappy with their leaders.
Kim Hyo-yong, chief executive of Vision Helper, a human resource management provider in Seoul, said the South Korean office is changing, as millennials and Gen Z have joined the workforce.
Younger Koreans can be less dedicated to their corporate employers than older employees who are more accustomed to following orders and spending long hours in the office, according to Kim.
Younger employees also are more about work-life balance and learning new skills that could help them cope with potential job changes or job loss, Kim said.
“For the millennial generation and Gen Z, the stable workplace concept has disappeared,” Kim told UPI, referring to the end of a lifetime employment guarantee that was in place for previous generations.
Younger Koreans who cope with uncertainty in the workplace also could be less likely to adhere to one political party, in contrast to Koreans in their 40s or 50s, Kim said.
Millennial South Koreans turned out in droves to support the 2016-17 “candlelight protests” against former President Park Geun-hye, a conservative, who later was impeached for enabling corruption at the highest level of government. Those same individuals could be rethinking their political support for Moon.
“The generation in their 40s and 50s, they don’t change a lot,” Kim said. “They stick to their guns. They’re a little stronger.”