KOREA FOCUS
The Dilemma of Defining the ‘880,000-Won Generation’: Why the Voices of the ‘Losers’ Are Inaudible
Oh Chan-ho

Lecturer
Sogang University and Sejong University



The members of a particular age group or a social group have a common personality and when they show certain styles of behavior based on their common traits, this is expressed using the term “generation.” However, it is very difficult to group social actors under the concept of a generation. No matter how many variables exist to explain a certain generation, a single objection raised by one member of that group — “I’m not like that…” — suggests an error in defining that generation. For example, those in their 30s by the late 1990s had attended university in the 1980s and were born in the 1960s, but can they simply be labeled the “386 generation”? The same goes with calling today’s university students the “880,000-won generation.” Those involved in generational research must face the dilemma of “some” versus “all.” So no matter how clearly the concept of generation is used, it is not logical to say that it explains everyone in that generation.
 
Karl Mannheim, the first scholar to interpret the concept of a generation in a sociological context, warned about this dilemma. On the basis of his model for constructing a generation — generation location → generation as actuality → generation unit — he attempted to define “all” generations. His focus was on finding the variables that enabled certain generations to respond differently to the same situation. For example, the characteristics of the youth culture after World War I bind those youth. Mannheim points out that stratification of experience occurs according to several variables, especially location, urban or rural. Therefore, while post-war changes were commonly experienced in broad terms, the accumulated memory of that experience can differ greatly according to the situation of different generations. The characteristics of a generational unit are thus determined by the way in which meaning is derived from the same experience. This emphasizes the idea that several generations can emerge from the same conditions. Hence the core of Mannheim’s generational theory is that while the primary group of a generation attracts the most attention, diverted and suppressed personalities also exist.
 
In spite of this, generational research has continued to focus on “one solid generation.” The titles of generations that we commonly use are not treated as sociological terminology, however, since they are mostly fashionable terms created by journals to explain certain consumption patterns or cultures, and are hence meaningless in an article such as this, in the real sense. It must also be pointed out that due to the social atmosphere where reconciliation and unity within a generation is tacitly imposed, and to explain this in a dramatic way, a solid generation is deliberately established and the gap between generations inflated.
 
The mood has changed in recent times, however. Researchers are wary of hastily establishing a certain generation. A number of papers point out that generations cannot be formed in such regular sequence, and while a sequential flow may exist, shared experience cannot serve as an absolute premise for the basis of a generation. For example, Jeon Sang-jin and Jeong Ju-hun take note that there is a wide paradox among university students who show both dependency and autonomy, while Noh Myeong-u points out that economic crisis is unevenly distributed within the young generation. (Jeon Sang-jin & Jeong Ju-hun, “Development Process and Growth Types of the Post-Youth Generation in Korea with Focus on University Students in Seoul Area,” Korean Sociology, Vol. 40, No. 6, 2006; Noh Myeong-u, “Unequal Distribution of Youth Crisis,” Culture and Science, No. 37, Spring 2004)  
 
These studies are attempts to find the differing aspects within a generation. Identifying types of people in the same generation in this way is ultimately an attempt to lay the groundwork to labeling every generation. Of course, this is not a complete definition of generation but it can clearly close the gap between “some” and “all.” As previously mentioned, when the concept of generation is seen as a tool to analyze society, much more precise points for social analysis can be discovered by looking within a generation.
 
Are We Looking within the 880,000-Won Generation Properly?
 
Park Gwon-il and Woo Seok-hun, authors of the book “880,000-Won Generation” (Palsipalman-won sedae) sparked discussion about this generation by focusing on the social structure which renders today’s 20-somethings unable to live without parental support. [The figure 880,000 won refers to the average monthly wage a person in their 20s can expect in casual or irregular jobs.] Of course, this is an old phenomenon that first emerged when higher education became so widespread in Korea. In the past, an endpoint to formal education was understood. But these days, young people in their 20s are delaying joining the workforce even after graduation.
 
The delay is becoming excessively long with no end in sight. According to 2009 figures, the unemployment rate for the 20s age group was 8.1 percent, more than double the total average unemployment rate of 3.7 percent. If the number of 20-somethings who have abandoned their job search or are still preparing to join the workforce is included, the unemployment rate for this group rises to as much as 20 percent. The number of 20-somethings who are counted as not economically active rose 19.8 percent in 2009 over 2008. Among all university students, 39.3 percent have delayed graduation by taking time off from their studies. The average time it takes such students to graduate is 6.5 years for males and 4 years and 5 months for females. On average it takes 11 months to get a job after graduation.
 
In their book, Park and Woo conclude that such problems will not be solved easily. They suggest this is because the 386 Generation [former student protestors who fought for democratization] created the current economic structure and are now reaching their peak in terms of social activity. In addition, they point out that the most decisive problem is that the way in which the 20-somethings are trying to solve this structural crisis is by competing amongst each other. So in the eyes of the authors, today’s 20-somethings, who have no ability to financially support themselves, can do almost nothing on an individual basis to solve the problem. Hence, Woo, in his subsequent book “Revolution Starts Quietly” (Hyeongmyeong-eun ireoke joyonghi), argues that the only way for them to overcome the crisis is to throw rocks and erect barricades in protest.
Battle Royale: The Keyword to Understanding the 880,000-Won Generation
 
In their book “880,000-Won Generation,” the authors said they thought a lot about the name and considered the “Winner-Take-All Generation” or the “Battle-Royale Generation” as alternatives. “Battle Royale” is the well-known title of a Japanese novel (from 1999) and movie (from 2002), and if this concept is properly applied it can be helpful in understanding today’s 20-somethings. In the movie, a class of middle school seniors are kidnapped and taken to an isolated island where they are forced to play a survival game that will leave only one person alive. The students have no idea why they are playing the game. Instinctively they follow the rules of the game, where the idea is to kill others in order to survive. In the end everyone dies, except one student.
 
Even from this brief outline, it is easy to see the overlap with the education problem in Korea today. The tragedy of Battle Royale is that everyone is meaninglessly sacrificed for the sake of one winner. As everyone in the movie dies, there is no way to give them any consolation. But in real life all the participants are alive. In the movie, there may be nobody aside from the winner, but in real life those “aside from the winner” undeniably exist. If the voices of the members of this generation must be heard, then naturally those “aside from the winner” should be mentioned in some way. But it is hard to hear their voices.
 
Why is this so? In the movie it makes no difference who dies first or who dies last. As everyone dies, it is meaningless to discuss who survived longer. But in real life, the order of deaths is tantamount to rank; the winner is above everyone else, while the person in second place is above everyone aside from the winner, and the person in third place is superior to everyone aside from those in first and second place. In this way society confirms that the person in tenth place has a comparative advantage over everyone aside from those in first to ninth place and so forth. The larger framework of the game remains unchanged. The winner still takes more than anyone else. The only difference is that everyone stays alive in real life, even if they do not win the game.
 
If this is the case, does the fact that everyone is still alive, in contrast to the movie, mean they are able to point out the tyranny of the winner? This is not so in real life, because the participants believe that, objectively, they deserve preferential treatment to those below them in rank. They believe that the higher one’s rank the more one deserves. To illustrate this point, below is an excerpt from an interview with Park So-mi (alias), 25. Park graduated from a university in the provinces and is currently working part-time at a large discount market. I asked what she thought about the protests held by non-regular workers on university campuses (janitors) regarding unfair dismissal, and this is what she said.  
 
“I know the work is difficult but it’s ridiculous to blindly demand a guarantee of regular, full-time employment. Many people have studied much harder and worked much harder than those people but are still in non-regular jobs. I’m only a casual worker. My work is as hard as theirs. I’m a university graduate and yet I suffer the situation in silence. To act that way [protest] is just a show of obstinacy. That’s why it’s important to gain the capabilities that will prevent you from being fired or make it easy to get another job even if you are fired. I always regret that I didn’t prepare myself better when I was in university.”
 
As this interview indicates, Park and others like her believe that the difference between regular and non-regular employees is a difference in ability. Even among non-regular workers, the variable of academic background makes differential treatment according to type of work acceptable. From this perspective, Park, up to this point, is a loser but not a “casualty.” This is because others were clearly eliminated before her. In other words, she is a survivor who, thanks to her university degree, is in position to look down on someone else. In real-life Battle Royale, participants are always able to find others who are inferior to them and therefore do not see the game as unfair. In this lies the tragedy of the 880,000-Won Generation. Why build barricades when the participants do not see the present situation as sacrifice? Where on earth can the voices of the losers be heard? Just whose voices are speaking for the 880,000-Won Generation?
 
No doubt about it. The 20-somethings are fools. But in a sense they can hardly be blamed. They are used to seeing themselves in comparison to others. Over a long period of time they have learned to find satisfaction through comparison with others, or underestimating them. At this point, we can bring in Mannheim’s concept of “stratification of experience.” Using this concept, it can be argued that the 20-somethings see no paradox in today’s neo-liberalist society because they have repeatedly learned to see that way from childhood. Therefore, many studies on this generation regard the 1997 financial crisis and subsequent IMF stewardship of Korea as important keywords in explaining them.
 
“The young people of Korea, those in their 20s who have just graduated from university and those who are a little older in their early 30s, comprise a generation who saw their fathers lose their jobs one after another and hit the streets looking for work. Though they lived with the ideal of chasing their own dreams rather than taking a routine office job, they were forced to witness the foundations [that would have enabled such dreams] crumble overnight.”
― “The Scared 20-Somethings and Shock Doctrine” by No Jeong-tae, 2008.
 
This mood determined the survival instincts of those youths. As a generation they saw their shining dreams overturned. The most important thing was to ease their anxiety and fears that the economic situation would be driven to the edge, but such worries could not be shared with the family under the uncertainties of IMF directives. In the end, in order to ease their anxieties they resorted to the method of consoling themselves using others as a stepping stone. In this context, it is meaningful to examine the so-called “wangtta” culture, the practice of picking out a victim for group bullying or ostracism, which spread through primary and secondary schools in the late 1990s to become a major social problem. The following account about those times comes from a university student who was born in 1987.
 
“It was a great comfort to find out that a lot of people besides me were ostracized by the group around 1998. When I look back, the greatest cause for this phenomenon was the gloomy mood in Korea at the time. Fearing they would end up as failures, people sought to put others in that place before they found themselves placed there. Somebody had to be the loser. Only in this way could the majority confirm that they were not losers and feel safe.”
In this way, the 880,000-Won Generation learned the rules of Battle Royale long ago. The distinguishing characteristics of this generation, who live completely according to the concept of comparative advantage, can be sufficiently understood if examined in the context of the stratification of experience, which occurred as they lived through the 1997-98 crisis. The notable point is that whatever action was repeated through stratification of experience became a very familiar mechanism for the person doing it. The same can be said for the Battle Royale-type attributes. From some point, the participants take part in the game without complaints. As the game progresses the possibility of recognizing the injustice of sacrifice disappears. Rather they acquiesce to the fairness of survival. As they accept the rules, they accept the standards for deciding the loser as fair also. This is shown very clearly in the comments below by a university student who is preparing to enter the workforce.
 
“What’s really frightening is that conditions for job application such as ‘TOEIC score of over XXX’ no longer rouse feelings of antagonism. People think, ‘This is a fair standard for measuring effort and diligence. If you don’t think it’s fair, then study!’ I saw the monster inside of me. It’s clear that academic background, appearance, family background [economic level] and other ‘specs’ are justified in this way.”
 
Given the situation, how is it possible to hear the voices of the losers? The losers look to the group lower than them, those with a less impressive academic background, appearance and other specs (specifications, or qualifications), who put them in a position of comparative advantage, and think it natural that they be treated better than them. Of course, they were not like that from the beginning. But through a stratified accumulation of experience, they became accustomed to some of the rules in particular.
 
Lastly, there is a question that must be answered. As mentioned before, it is the question of “What is the voice of today’s 880,000-Won Generation?” Let’s approach this question also from the movie “Battle Royale” and the weapons handed out to the participants to kill each other. In the movie some get bullets and some get hand grenades but others, absurdly enough, get fans or saucepan lids. Nobody can be killed with a fan, of course. Hence the game is not fair from the start. In real life, this inequality at the starting point can be found in various aspects.
 
Let’s compare this with the situation in a book titled “First Half of the Match for the 20-Somethings” (Isipdae jeonbanjeon), a book about competitive society written by five Seoul National University students, which describes rather well the paradoxical situation in which the 880,000-Won Generation find themselves. The authors of the book, however, are not at the same starting line as the “losers” mentioned in this article.
 
It must be first clarified that in my research, which only involved students and graduates of universities in the provinces and junior colleges, many of the losers do not see the current situation as paradoxical. This is due to their lack of ability to critically view their environment through politico-economic or socio-cultural concepts. Such critical ability can be learned through study, but when the wind of neo-liberalism hit, the university curriculum began to ignore teaching about the paradoxical situation in society. This means the problem must be viewed from a critical perspective solely through individual efforts, and between the students of Seoul National University and those of provincial universities it is needless to say who has the greater composure in face of such problems. For some, the experience under the IMF gave them firsthand experience of the social paradox, and for others it taught them the methods of survival.
 
Because their perceptions of the situation were different, naturally their responses were different. In “First Half of the Match for the 20-Somethings,”Choe Eun-jeong suffered a burn while working at a fast food restaurant, but the manager’s response was “That’s what society is like.” Up to this point, the situation is little different from that of any other 20-something. But Choe walked out of that job and got a new casual job doing office work. Mun Su-hyeon refuses to be a private tutor, believing it to be a distorted form of labor emerging from society’s obsession with academic credentials. Instead she looks for a job that will satisfy several conditions that she explains in the following.
 
“University students need casual work not only to fill their pockets. Casual work is like practice for the real workforce. Students can practice their work ethics, refine their views of labor, learn how to adjust human relations formed through work, and realize the fatigue of hard work and its value, thereby forming healthy consumption habits.”
 
But most losers find it hard to understand how a person can leave a job out of anger about mistreatment. The losers’ understanding of casual work is the opposite of that detailed above. Indeed, they tend to agree with the manager’s cold response, “That’s what society is like.” Let’s take a look at the following interview with Kim Sang-ho (alias), 30, a graduate of a junior college in the provinces and currently unemployed.
 
“Seoul National University graduates are different. See. The first thing they think of is quitting. It means they’re not desperate. In the past, when I worked on a construction site, students from prestigious universities came now and then. Mostly they came to ‘experience life,’ but in many cases they worked for about a week and then left. It makes me sick. It must be nice to be able to quit whenever you like. When is my ‘experience of life’ going to end?”
 
The premise behind Kim’s response is simple: the weapon he holds is nothing but a fan. So he is out of the game before it even really starts. It is impossible to win the battle with a fan. His elimination from the game has simply been delayed for a while as he continues to obey the commands of those holding guns. For this reason, he is unable to quit a job simply because he is treated badly. And he has never dreamed of rejecting manual labor that offered high pay. In this respect, the criticism that “First Half of the Match for the 20-Somethings” is simply the romantic introspections of Seoul National University students who have already won the battle. It is not hard to understand, but it is hard to see the generation properly with this “elitist” view. Therefore, it is natural to question whose voices are making the “complaints” that we perceive to be those of today’s 880,000-Won Generation.
 
No Turning the Tables
 
This article was originally planned to show the real state of the “880,000-Won Generation,” in similar fashion to the recent trend of making candid exposes of their lifestyle to demonstrate the paradox of the times. Over the past two years, while identifying and following the lives of those who best fitted the description of the 880,000-Won Generation, it was my wish to hear up-front about the paradox of life from the mouths of the most up-front members of this generation. But my subjects did not agree with the social discourse explaining who they were. They kept denying the definition, saying “I’m not like that…” So I believe it is right to first propose a solution.
 
Though their response may be unexpected, there will be no reversal in their situation. No matter what they think, there is almost no possibility of turning the tables. Objectively, they have been eliminated from the game. Calling them “losers,” society seeks to point out the paradox of the game, while the eliminated take a totally different line, insisting, “At least we’re not at the bottom…” This cool attitude will do nothing to change the situation. Rather, it will aggravate the paradoxical structure, and in this lies the tragedy of the 880,000-Won Generation.
 
[Culture and Science (Moonhwa Gwahak), Autumn 2010,
published by Moonhwa Gwahak Co.]