Young South Koreans attack the old guard they blame for the economy of the “Squid Game”

For decades, Seoul’s Central Market, with its ramshackle shops and grungy street food, has been a gathering place for retirees looking for inexpensive meals, clothes, and cooking utensils.

These days they are competing more and more for space with hipsters in heels and Birkenstocks trolling the posh restaurants and cafes that sprout between rice shops and noodle joints.

Aspiring bosses and new business owners – some who have given up on seeking employment in South Korea’s sprawling family conglomerates like Samsung Electronics Co. – are raising rents and turning the neighborhood into a battleground in a feud generational.

The older side resent the new residents, saying they are relatively well off thanks in large part to the hard work and savings of those who fueled the country’s post-Korean War boom. The younger crowd, meanwhile, blames her ancestors for making homeownership unrealistic and producing the rigged rat race depicted in Korean dramas such as “Squid Game” and “Parasite.”

“The more I see these punks, the more I worry about the future of this country,” said Lee Young-jae, 78, who has run a used kitchen supply store since the early 1980s, when the country has started its march to become the 10th largest economy in the world. “They complain about the injustice of our society, but life is unfair, get used to it! All they do is complain about the system and not be willing to like everything they have.

Nearby, Choe Eun-byeol, a 33-year-old employee in the communications industry, fended off Lee’s complaints between sips of an iced latte at a glitzy cafe that was once a rice store. dilapidated.

“This is complete nonsense,” she said. “In his day, people could afford a house, get prestigious jobs if you studied and worked hard. Now that’s only in the history books.

Properties around Seoul Central Market. Apartment prices in Seoul have doubled in the past five years. | BLOOMBERG

Choe is part of the South Korean MZ Generation – Millennials in their 30s and Gen Z in their 20s – who argue that social and economic divisions are deepening. Some MZers mockingly call themselves the “abandoned generation” and mock their own country as “Joseon Hell,” a reference to a dynasty that ruled the peninsula for half a millennium.

While this is a complaint with echoes around the world – as accommodative monetary policies and, more recently, a pandemic-triggered real estate rush are pushing up house prices – the disputes over South Korea were particularly acute.

Some 90% of adults say there are strong conflicts between supporters of different political parties, tied with the United States for the highest rate among the 17 advanced economies studied, according to Pew Research published this week.

But traditional loyalties could erode ahead of the March election to replace President Moon Jae-in, 68, whose tenure has been marked by heated debates over everything from rising rents and institutionalized patronage to sexual harassment. for women and compulsory military service for men. Moon’s left-wing Democratic Party (DP) and the conservative opposition have adopted populist slogans to appeal to the discontented.

South Korea has a poverty rate of 16.7 percent, fourth among 38 members of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. It has the highest pay gap between men and women, at 32.5%.

Young customers dine at Apothecary Café in Seoul |  BLOOMBERG
Young customers dine at Apothecary Café in Seoul | BLOOMBERG

House prices in the greater Seoul area – where half of the country’s nearly 52 million people live – have doubled in the past five years, crushing a 20% increase in wages. While the unemployment rate is around 4% overall, it is more than double that of workers under 30.

“The reality today is simply brutal,” Choe said. “No matter how hard you work, it’s impossible to afford a home in Seoul. And it is just too difficult to get a decent job even if you have graduated from a top university.

Such stresses have been detailed by films like Oscar-winning “Parasite,” which tells the story of a poor family whose members try to find jobs in a wealthy household by inflating their skills and claiming that ‘they are not related. “Squid Game” also follows more than 400 highly indebted people who play a series of deadly children’s games to earn a fortune for the sake of a few super rich VIPs.

Some young voters who helped Moon topple Tory President Park Geun-hye amid a corruption scandal have become frustrated with his inability to close the gaps.

Moon was considered a quintessential “586er” – a term used to describe those who went to college in the 1980s and were in their fifties when it was coined. It is a generation that rebelled against the authoritarian regime, called democratic elections and came to dominate Korean society.

Customers walk out of a cafe in Seoul's Sindang district.  |  BLOOMBERG
Customers walk out of a cafe in Seoul’s Sindang district. | BLOOMBERG

The former human rights activist also pledged to eliminate deals between the government and the powerful chaebol conglomerates. Instead, Moon’s corporate reforms have stalled and his administration has also been rocked by abuse of power scandals, including allegations that the then justice minister used his influence. to get his children into prestigious universities.

Controversies have undermined the once-reliable support for the DP among young voters. Instead, they warmed up to the right-wing opposition, which renamed itself the People’s Power Party. A Realmeter poll released last week showed the PPP was favored by South Koreans in their 20s and 30s, as well as the traditional bloc’s base among voters in their 60s and 60s.

“Basically, it’s not a generational conflict issue,” said Shin Yul, professor of political science at Myongji University in Seoul. “The real problem is that a lot of people – including the older generations, apart from the 586 progressives – think that our society is not fair, favoring only the 586 in power.”

Earlier this month, Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung – who pledged a “universal basic income” of 500,000 won ($ 420) per month – beat an ally of Moon to secure the party’s nomination for run for president. Lee Jae-myung, 56, said after his victory he would launch real estate reforms to curb house prices and fight corruption, vowing to make the country more equal.

But even his offer was clouded by a scandal involving one of his associates who made a profit on a land deal. The PPP has requested independent counsel to investigate.

Meanwhile, the party chose a 36-year-old Harvard graduate with little political experience as its leader. The rise of Lee Jun-seok, who has never served in parliament, is seen as appealing to a disgruntled MZ Generation faction.

Seoul Central Market in July |  BLOOMBERG
Seoul Central Market in July | BLOOMBERG

“I’m pretty sure they’re looking forward to the next presidential election in March – they think they can change the nation,” Lee Jun-seok said in July, adding that many young voters thought the current system favored the rich and connected. He called for “qualifying tests” to assess the ability of future lawmakers to use computer programs – a proposition some see as an affront to the “586ers”.

But Lee Do-yeah, a 58-year-old social worker, said she had little sympathy for the MZ Generation. His criticism echoed the now familiar generational divide.

“The younger generations these days are too individualistic,” said Lee, who lives in Chungcheong province, which is expected to be a key electoral battleground. “They put their personal interests ahead of those of (the) community and too easily quit their jobs when they think their interests are being compromised.”

Many of the MZ Generation choose to forgo marriage, have children, and buy a house. Those like Choe in Seoul’s Central Market argue that it makes more sense to focus only on taking care of themselves.

“I am skeptical that the next president of this country – whoever he is, whatever party he represents – would be able to solve this problem,” she said. “But I expect him to at least be nicer and try to make our society a little fairer than it is today. I am going to vote for someone who is ready to fight for this fairness.

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