Author: Hong-Jung Kim (Professor, Department of Sociology, SNU)
Source: Korean Journal of Sociology, 49(1), 179-212.
In the 21st century, Korean society has witnessed an explosion of discourses regarding the younger generation, given names such as the Sampo Generation, Spoon Class Generation, and 880,000 Won Generation, where they are portrayed as seeking escape from individual struggles rather than attempting to fix societal problems. Survival is, among all conceptions of the younger generation, their modus operandi. Survivalism is a composite psychological system formulated by the younger generation of Koreans, who must confront new predicaments in their daily lives which are brought about by the circumstances of post-modern society. Survivalism is the heartset construction, which moves actors through the powers of anxiety, compulsion, will, and desire.
In this respect, this article defines the younger generation of the 21st century Korea as the “Survivalist Generation,” and takes the following steps to examine the structure and logic of their heartset from a theoretical standpoint. First, the appropriateness of the term “Survivalist Generation” will be tested through a re-organization of the basic sociological concepts of Karl Mannhiem’s theory of generations. Second, how survival is manifested as the generation’s modus operandi and how it nurtures survivalism as a composite psychological system will be explained through social transformations. Third, the meaning of survival will be multilaterally analyzed in respect to the paradigm of global competition. Fourth, co-existentialism, solipsism, and counter-existentialism will be proposed against survivalism. Finally, the historical roots of survivalism, the basis of which can be found in modern Korean history, will be reviewed.
Mannheim’s most notable contribution to the sociology of generations is to theoretically elaborate upon the importance of the generational unit as a principle agent for social change as important as social class. Conceptualizing the “generational location,” the “generation in actuality,” and “generational unit,” he focuses on the generation as developing a particular consciousness out of shared historical experiences. His theoretical foundation, in its practical application, has some problematic aspects; for example, if a generation is not significantly influenced by some staggering historical experience (e.g. the Generation of 68 or the WW1 Generation) some new concept is needed to explain how that generation shares distinct attitudes, values, or consciousness. Additionally, not all generations have the excess capacity to act, as described by Mannheim, but share, rather, some social or cultural characteristics which enable them to act together as one generation. In addition to this, a consciousness shared by a generation can be analyzed through composites of symbols, media, knowledge, habits, performances, or various trials which structure consciousness. In this context, this article proposes to analyze the Korean youth generation, not based on consciousness, but based on heart. Here, the heart is defined as the source of the mental, emotional, and intentional capacities for action and the enacting of social practices, through which is produced communication, presented and re-organized by the effects of those practices.
It is, therefore, the generational heart/ heartset--the crystallization of cultural elements driven by generational semantics--which enables the generation as a unit. The formation of survivalism was possible because the concept of survival acted as a privileged signifier in symbolically re-organizing the younger generation’s objective reality. Specifically, economic difficulties, such as the high unemployment rate, rising tuition costs, and expensive home loans, have been regarded as the most important obstacles to overcome for the younger generation, while marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, and other more intimate areas of their lives have had to be rationally self-controlled. Survival has become the most critical framework through which the youth pursue both the social and intimate areas of their lives.
The meaning of survival can be summarized as follows: first, the new conception of survival portrays existence as spending one’s entire lifetime trying not to fall behind or drop out of contention in every type of competitive situation. Second, the aim of survival is not to win the competition and thus transcend the situation entirely, but to postpone the necessity of competition until some future date. Going to college or getting a job is not total success, but a process for ascending to some upper level of competition. Third, all individuals should be a self-governing subject capable of converting all potential capacities into tangible resources. Fourth, this new survival does not refer to special success or some gigantic accomplishment. What the younger generation seeks to achieve is ordinary stability. Finally, the new meaning of survival is to pursue both self-authenticity and social normalization. Authenticity has long been used to resist social oppression, but here social normalization and adaptation can also be facilitated through the bolstering of authenticity.
As elaborated, survivalism is, of course, the most powerful regime for the younger generation of Koreans, but not all of this generation is governed by this regime. In this paper we suggest that other counteracting regimes exist, and they are co-existentialism, solipsism, and counter-existentialism. The co-existentialist tries to achieve an individualized and autonomous life; an anti-social liberalist. The solipsist raises issues with the survivalist lifestyle and, as an alternative, pursues a variety of collective lifestyles. The counter-existentialist agent seeks an excessive social movement, the escape from survivalism. This agent will attempt to disappear from existence.
It is worth noting that it is possible that the tendency for survivalism has arisen from the general atmosphere of Korean society, through the continuous and daily processes of learning. Therefore, not only the younger generation, but perhaps, all generations of Koreans seek a survivalist ideal, and it is just through the younger generation that we can witness the existence of survivalism most clearly. In this respect, survivalist attitudes are not necessarily unique to the 21st century, but instead, the dynamics of Korean social modernity have been made possible through diverse historical experience.