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South Korea is well known for its rapid economic growth since the 1960s and equally impressive democratization since 1987. But these critical gains will be affected deeply by the country’s wrenching demographic transitions and the accompanying social, political, and economic repercussions. For these reasons, it is important to understand the varying political views that tend to resonate with different generations of South Koreans.

The Demographics of South Korea’s Changing Population

South Korean society can be divided into four major demographic groups, which do not correspond precisely to the baby boomer and millennial labels common in the United States. South Koreans can be grouped into four political generations who have spent their formative years in vastly different sociopolitical conditions. First, there is the country’s rapidly rising elderly population, which includes the generation that came of age during the Korean War and the postwar baby boomers. They are now in their sixties and older. Second, there is the in-between generation known as the Democratization Generation (known in South Korea as the 386 Generation), who were born in the 1960s and gained notoriety for their activism during the country’s democratization in the 1980s. They are now in their fifties.

Third is the first post-democratization generation. Known as Generation X, they are now in their forties. Finally, there is the New Generation of young people in their twenties and thirties who are composed of two subgroups: the older millennials and the younger Generation Z. The younger South Koreans in their twenties and thirties grew up in an affluent South Korean society but face growing economic angst despite their potential to drive technological innovation.

While South Koreans of all ages support democracy in principle, emerging intergenerational conflicts could harm the country’s prevailing democratic consensus. Most immediately, as one of the developed world’s “fastest-aging societies,” South Korea will face rising social welfare costs. Growing problems such as underemployment, youth unemployment, and increasing healthcare costs already are putting enormous pressure on each population group.

Sook Jong Lee
Sook Jong Lee is president emeritus and a senior fellow at the East Asia Institute and a professor at Sungkyunkwan University.

Over the long term, South Korea will face declining tax revenues due to a shrinking population, even as these welfare costs rise precipitously. In 2019, South Korea spent 12.2 percent of GDP for social welfare, far less than the 20 percent average among members of the OECD. Spending on healthcare, welfare programs, and unemployment benefits accounted for 35.2 percent of the South Korean government’s 2021 budget, a slight increase from 34 percent in 2019. But demand for welfare programs is growing so rapidly that the South Korean government has had to increase funding for them. While the need for public spending on social welfare services is increasing, population aging and decline are expected to cause significant revenue losses unless the country’s tax system is revamped.

The scale of South Korea’s shifting demographics is quite stark. In 2020, for the first time since the country’s founding in 1948, South Korea registered a net population decline, and a 2021 UN report found that South Korea has the lowest fertility rate in the world. According to the Korean Statistical Information Service, seniors ages sixty-five and over accounted for 15.7 percent of the total population of 51.8 million South Koreans in 2020. That rate is forecasted to rise to 25 percent by 2030, even as the country’s total population is projected to fall.

These demographic shifts are also affecting the composition of South Korea’s electorate. According to reports on the country’s April 2020 parliamentary election, young voters between eighteen and twenty-nine years old accounted for 18.1 percent of the electorate, and voters in their thirties made up 15.9 percent of the votes tallied. Meanwhile, voters who were at least sixty accounted for 27.3 percent of ballots cast. The share of voters over sixty was 6.7 percentage points smaller than the share of younger voters between eighteen and thirty-nine. Middle-aged voters in their forties and fifties accounted for 19 percent and 19.7 percent of the ballots cast, respectively. All told, then, younger voters between eighteen and thirty-nine accounted for just more than one-third of voters, while senior voters in their sixties or older accounted for more than a quarter of them, whereas voters in their forties and fifties each amassed a vote share of just under one-fifth.

Younger voters in their twenties and thirties can have a substantial political impact if a greater share of them vote, especially as time goes on. A smaller share of younger voters tend to vote compared to older groups. Generational gaps in voting participation are often more pronounced in parliamentary elections than in presidential elections. Voting participation rates have increased among almost all age groups over South Korea’s last four parliamentary elections. Nevertheless, the gap between younger and older voters still remains significant. For example, fewer than 60 percent of voters in their twenties and thirties cast ballots in the 2020 parliamentary election, whereas 70 percent of voters in their fifties and 80 percent of voters in their sixties did so.

A Democracy With Differing Generational Political Demands

One major way these demographic changes are poised to reshape South Korean democracy relates to these generations’ contrasting political demands. While the country has experienced income inequality and other stressors such as deep political divides, overall support for democracy remains strong. Since the mid-2000s, South Koreans have displayed an increasingly pronounced preference for democracy over authoritarianism. In 2006, the Asian Barometer Survey found that only 42.7 percent of South Koreans preferred democracy unequivocally, whereas 63 percent did in 2015. A follow-on East Asia Institute survey asked the same question in 2020 and found that 69.6 percent of South Koreans favored democracy, while only 19.6 percent were amenable to authoritarianism.

Despite this encouraging news, there is still cause for concern. After all, one must take into account the future economic well-being of major population groups and how their long-term economic prospects are likely to affect the country’s political choices and interests going forward.

First, consider South Korea’s elderly population. The country’s accelerated economic growth during the so-called Miracle on the Han River in the 1960s was led by a generation of workers who are now in their seventies or older (see photo 1). But South Korea’s poverty rate among the elderly is the highest in the OECD, and the suicide rate among elderly South Koreans is about triple the OECD average. Even so, elderly South Koreans interestingly are also the country’s most ardent supporters of democracy, given their pride in the country’s economic development and democratization. For example, in a May 2020 survey by the East Asia Institute, respondents over sixty years old were more supportive of democracy as a form of government than South Korean young people in their twenties by a difference of around 7 percentage points.1 Their concept of democracy is often understood as a liberal democracy as opposed to the Communist-led single party rule of North Korea.

South Koreans who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s spent their formative years watching the country rapidly industrialize after the Korean War. Their economy underwent a historic transformation ushered in by the central planning of an authoritarian government led by then president Park Chung-hee.

The most influential voters today, however, are those in their fifties who fought for democratization. They tend to be politically progressive, and many student activists of this generation eventually became politicians, civil society leaders, and public officials (see photo 2). But their rise to power has also invited criticism of their confrontational politics and accusations that they have calcified into vested interest groups. Within ten years, this progressive generation will enter their sixties, retire, and potentially turn more conservative as they age. Nevertheless, progressive political reforms remain their main demands for now.

The Democratization Generation was instrumental in defying South Korea’s authoritarian government and unleashing a democratic transformation in the 1980s through student activism and protests, an experience that profoundly shaped this generation’s political outlook.

Meanwhile, South Koreans in their forties, as members of Generation X, are regarded as the first generation to turn away from the traditional mainstays of collectivistic nationalism or hierarchical organizational culture in favor of individualism. This generation serves as a bridge between the two older generations and the younger New Generation. They can be described as the country’s first post-democratization generation. Growing up in a democratic society, they were less active in championing the collective goal of democratization than the generation before them. Politically more pragmatic and more conscious of individual rights, this age group is expected to innovate South Korean politics by replacing the older generation of ideologically divided leaders (see photo 3).

Generation X came of age in a democratic and more developed South Korea. Amid greater freedoms and prosperity, many members of Generation X embraced the countercultural music of artists like Seo Taiji (pictured above), the front man of what is often regarded as the first K-pop group.

South Korean young people in their twenties and thirties are arguably the most important group for forecasting the future of South Korean democracy. Highly educated and technologically adaptable, they represent the country’s most vulnerable generation so far due to increasing job insecurity, unaffordable housing, and rapid automation in workplaces. Many South Korean young people are delaying marriage and children or have given up on such aspirations altogether. The term Hell Joseon (which connotes a hellish reality of intense socioeconomic and class competition) is popular among millennials, and many are motivated to emigrate abroad (see photo 4). They deride what they perceive as the condescending attitudes and hints of presumed superiority of retiring baby boomers in the workplace using the term “kkondae.”

South Korea’s economic ascendance has bred intense socioeconomic competition and severe pressure to excel professionally for millennials and members of Generation Z. The students pictured above brace themselves for high-stakes college entrance exams—an especially punishing rite of passage.

South Korean youth are active online but disconnected from traditional politics. Mistrustful of formal civil society organizations, South Korean young people tend to nest themselves within smaller online communities on social media. When their powerful and rich peers receive differential treatment accessing educational or job opportunities, their anger quickly explodes into off-line protests. Unfortunately, they are poorly represented in the South Korean legislature and isolated from formal politics. That said, sensitive as they are to the issues of fairness and justice, this generation could transform South Korean politics in the next decade by pressing for a more inclusive brand of politics, universal basic income, and higher taxes on the rich. The recent election of Lee Jun-seok, a thirty-six-year-old politician, as a new leader for the opposition People Power Party is a good signal for this kind of change.

Conclusion

South Korea has experienced a history rife with enormous challenges, including national partition, a fratricidal war, and periods of dictatorship followed by extremely rapid economic growth and accelerated democratization amid the sustained pro-globalization policies of the past seven decades. Despite their differing points of emphasis, all generations of South Koreans support democracy strongly. With a sluggish growth rate and the increasing burden of securing the well-being of a rapidly aging society, however, South Korea will likely find its democratic resilience tested in the years ahead.

These pressures mainly are falling on the country’s younger and older generations. Families are no longer serving as a safety net, as the country’s marriage rate is declining and the share of single-member households is increasing rapidly. Young South Koreans with a shortage of decent work prospects cannot provide sufficient tax revenues for the government to expand its welfare spending for the elderly unless reforms are made.

If South Korean democracy is to remain resilient and to withstand the socioeconomic conflicts over these challenges, the country must urgently and comprehensively address two overarching imperatives: providing viable economic futures for young South Koreans and meeting the material needs of the older generations of the world’s fastest-aging population. South Korean politics in the 2020s and beyond will revolve around the monumental task of bridging the gap between these two divergent demographic groups and attending to their differing political demands.

Notes

1 Woo-chang Kang, “South Koreans’ Ideological Identity and Attitudes on Democracy,” in 2020 National Identity of South Koreans: Trends of the Past 15 Years edited by Sook Jong Lee et al. (Seoul: East Asia Institute), 185–186.