Barry Cha knew his days were numbered. The 49-year-old general manager for a top South Korean company saw the signs around him. First he was passed up for a series of promotions. Then a much younger colleague leapfrogged him into upper management. The successful Korean chaebol was constantly singing the praises of its young talent while hardly saying a word about the value of its older, experienced hands. The message was clear: after 23 years of service, it was time for this company man to move on. When he submitted his resignation letter earlier this year, Cha's boss accepted it as though wondering why it had taken so long. Today Cha feels betrayed. "I devoted my entire adulthood to the company," he says. "But I was dumped simply because I was too old."
For a country with a centuries-old Confucian tradition, South Korea is in the midst of a rare and uncharacteristic struggle between old and young. Since President Roh Moo Hyun rode to victory on the votes of younger Koreans late last year, countless Korean organizations--companies, banks, newspapers and universities--have worked hard to put forward a more youthful face. Youth is now a credential, synonymous with creativity, energy and ambition. Meanwhile, workers in their mid-40s--who in most places would be in the prime years of their career--are being branded as conservative, incompetent or corrupt. It's hardly surprising that those being put out to pasture share Cha's sense of betrayal, increasingly resentful of this trend toward everything young. "Every country has generational conflicts," says Chun Sang In, a sociologist at Hallim University. "But in Korea it is too confrontational and sudden. This is almost a war."
Most observers agree that President Roh's election last December was the trigger. The former human-rights lawyer was --barely recognized in political circles when the primaries began. But Roh, 56, pulled off a surprising come-from-behind victory thanks to the enormous support of the so-called 386 Generation--people in their 30s who as college students protested against the military government in the 1980s and who were born in the 1960s. Roh, who championed a liberal agenda, was shunned by the older generation, but young voters supported him en masse.
He rewarded them in kind. His administration is now filled with members of the 386 Generation. The average age of the presidential staff is at least 10 years younger than the previous administration's. Presidential advisers in their 40s--or younger--account for more than 80 percent of the total, compared with 60 percent five years ago. Several of Roh's cabinet ministers--whose average age is 55--are in their 40s, which is shocking in a country where even those in their 50s were recently regarded as too young for such esteemed positions. Many say the Blue House now resembles the early Clinton White House, where casual thirtysomething staffers roamed the halls. "The current Blue House staff is the youngest and most dynamic in Korean history," says Hahm Sung Duek of Korea University. "They are idealistic and democratic, but inexperienced and disorganized at the same time."
To be fair, the generational changes began even before Roh took power. When former president Kim Dae Jung took office five years ago amid the Asian financial crisis, he initiated drastic economic reforms that led businesses to purge older executives. New rules making layoffs easier allowed companies to persuade many employees to take early retirement, especially those deemed responsible for the fiscal mess. Younger managers with a more Western mind-set quickly replaced bosses who were more accustomed to cronyism than accounting.
But today's social shift is much faster and more wide-ranging. Newspapers, for example, have retired older editors critical of Roh and appointed younger journalists with better contacts in the inner circles of government. Young members of the teachers' union have started campaigns to oust the more conservative-minded principals at some public schools. Roh's appointment of a 46-year-old female Justice minister led to the mass departure of a number of senior prosecutors. "In every sector of the society, this generational change has become the buzzword," says Korea University's Hahm.
And companies are digging even deeper. In the past, forced early retirement was most likely to occur at banks hit hard by the financial crisis. But now even successful businesses are thinning their ranks of company lifers. Most white-collar workers retire before 50 as younger people pass them on the promotion ladder. At many companies, 45 is now regarded as the standard retirement age, and those who stay after 56 are often called "thieves." Even profitable companies like Samsung are pushing for a younger work force. Those in their 40s now account for 67 percent of Samsung executives, up from 59 percent last year. The average age of executives at the top five conglomerates is 45, compared with more than 50 before the financial crisis.
Of course, these sudden changes have stung older Koreans. It's a shock to the system for a country whose traditional respect for one's elders is so strong that every subway car has at least a dozen seats reserved for the elderly. All of a sudden their seniority is associated more with corruption than wisdom. Many younger Koreans question why the older generation didn't do more to challenge the country's authoritarian rule. "The old generation was too cowardly to fight," says Kim Tae Il, a 39-year-old businessman who led student protests in the '80s. "They cared only about their well-being, not the country." While they'll admit they may not have done all they could, fifty- and sixtysomething Koreans are quick to point out their sacrifices. "Korea's remarkable economic growth was made possible because of our blood, sweat and tears," says 57-year-old Park Hyun Myung, a retired chaebol employee. "Young people don't appreciate that."
The bitterness is most palpable among Korea's baby boomers. Born shortly after the Korean War, those in their late 40s and early 50s see themselves as Korea's lost generation. Unlike American boomers, who emerged as a powerful political and economic group, they lost their chance to become a potent social force to the 386 Generation. In politics and business their absence is striking, especially considering they were the first generation of Koreans to benefit from higher education on a mass scale. "We are a sandwich generation," said Lee Heung Sup, a 48-year-old business consultant. "We are caught between the aggressive young and autocratic old."
Korea's generational divide may not be all bad. The solidarity among the young, especially the 386 Generation, is so strong that it's helping to dissolve the country's deep-rooted regional divide. The bitter animosity between the regions of southwest Cholla and southeast Kyongsang has for centuries dictated the political landscape, creating huge social rifts. In fact, last year's presidential election was the first time South Korea's path wasn't decided along rigid regional lines. "Because of their unique collective memory of the '80s, the 386 Generation thinks and acts similarly," says Hallim University's Chun. Indeed, they are more liberal and political than twentysomething Koreans. Chun believes the unique nature of the 386 Generation is what makes Korea's age gap so divisive now. "As the generation's memory of the'80s fades, so will the generational divide."
Today, however, the chasm remains wide. And middle-aged Koreans can't help but feel discarded by a society to which they believe they still have something to contribute. Sidelined as they are, it's understandable that they blame their country's shaky economy and deteriorating relations with North Korea on the elevation of youth and hubris. "Korea is having a crash landing because of inexperienced pilots," says Cha, the former chaebol manager. "Our wisdom and experience is needed more than ever." That may be true. But for now, nobody seems to be listening.