The impending war between South Korea's generations

opinion February 28, 2014 00:00

By Kim Seong-kon
The Korea Heral

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With the number of senior citizens rapidly rising in Korean society due to an increasing average life-span, conflict between the young and the old is brewing. Clashes occur daily because while the elderly expect deference from the young, the young no long

In the eyes of the older generation, young people today are shockingly rude and offensive. On the contrary, young people seem to resent the older people’s sense of entitlement. Naturally, senior citizens lament the loss of Confucian customs involving respect for elders, whereas the Westernised youth snort at what to them seem like long-obsolete authoritarian customs. As a result, we are seeing frequent clashes between Eastern virtues and Western values, and Confucianism and pragmatism in today’s Korean society. 
The world of the subway system is one place where one can clearly see the conflict between the young and the old unfolding. Sometimes, one may witness an older man admonish youngsters sitting in seats reserved for the elderly. Of course, the young should not sit on the reserved seats. Nevertheless, old people should not yell at strangers over a seat, either. Some elderly, instead of seeking seats in the reserved section, go to the middle of the train and expect passengers to give up their seats. When a youth gives up a seat, an elderly rider often takes the gesture for granted and does not thank the person. Naturally, young people do not like such unappreciative older people. Sometimes conflicts break out, with the two riders exchanging obscene words. 
In a recent article in the online edition of the New York Times entitled “South Korea’s Underground Seat Fight”, renowned Korean novelist Kim Young-ha describes the clash over seats on the subway between the young and the old. After lamenting the deplorable situation, Kim concludes, “For now, South Korea’s intergenerational conflict seems limited to the underground. But without a meaningful dialogue on how to help both our struggling elderly and disaffected young people, the tensions will find a way of rising to the surface.” 
Indeed, it is only a matter of time until the underground conflict between the two generations rises to the surface. When that day comes, the intergenerational war will emerge as a serious social problem in our society. For example, the conflict between the old and the young will not be confined to subway seats, but will extend to the job market, homes, and even the realm of communication. The three areas, in fact, are closely intertwined.
As the renowned Korean novelist Chun Myung-gwan humorously shows in his celebrated novel “The Ageing Society”, we now live in a society with a growing number of unemployed old people. In the current system it is customary for employees of large corporations to retire at about age 50. The problem is if most people live to be 90 or 100, they must find a way to support themselves for 40 to 50 years after retirement. In addition, not everybody is entitled to a pension; and even if one is fortunate enough to receive a pension, often the amount is far from sufficient to fully support an aged couple. If retirees start seeking part-time jobs at supermarkets and gas stations, they will inevitably take job opportunities from young people. 
The elderly who are not financially independent often depend on and live with their children. Cohabitation of the young and old can lead to a host of problems. One such problem is the unbridgeable gap between the older and younger generations. How can communication be easy, for example, between a grandfather who cannot even turn on a computer and his grandson who cannot live without a smartphone? 
Conflict between generations is not just a modern phenomenon. Some time ago, a group of archaeologists found a short inscription on the wall of an ancient cave which lamented, “Ah! How can we teach manners to ill-bred youngsters?” And the young have always protested against oldsters who cling to old-fashioned ways and demand deference. 
As for me, I am caught between these two generations. Technically, I may be an old man of 65 who is entitled to a free subway pass and an official senior citizen ID card. Yet, I don’t sit in the reserved section for the elderly. Nor will I expect or allow young people to offer me a seat, either. At the same time, I am offended when I see a young man despise or curse an older man simply because he is old and physically weak. Young people should treat the elderly with respect. Such behaviour is a matter of humanity, rather than Confucian morality. 
An intergenerational war may soon rise to the surface with both the young and old pointing fingers and clashing over conflicting ideals. Before such a day arrives, we must learn to get along and to live with mutual respect for all. 
Kim Seong-kon is a professor of English at Seoul National University and president of the Literature Translation Institute of Korea.