June 22, 2022
SEOUL – Korean language has no shortage of insults, but “kkondae” seems to hold a special place in the country right now.
While the term‘s definition and usage have expanded over the years from condescending seniors at work to people of older generations in general who come into conflicts with younger people over values and resources, the fear of being labeled as such has grown in tandem.
At Kyobo Book Center, a keyword search for “kkondae” returns some 75 entries with the term either in the title or subtitle. Many of the books appear to be offering advice on how to avoid becoming a kkondae or, for those already in that territory, how to accept themselves and survive in a society turning increasingly hostile to them.
MZ vs. kkondae
To understand what is going on, just talk to any office worker in Korea.
A 31-year-old salesperson named Kim shared his personal account of a kkondae at work, his manager.
Saying the manager once told him to refrain from heading home shortly after 6 p.m., Kim said, “It was like he believes that those who stay late at the office are more diligent and better workers.”
He also mentioned “hoesik,” after-work meal gatherings that almost inevitably involve kkondae, and the long-standing culture that makes it virtually mandatory for workers to participate. “Kkondae typically force junior workers to drink more.”
For Ha, a 29-year-old who works at a large advertising company, a kkondae is someone who is so self-involved that they only say what they want to say, regardless of what others are talking about. “This person was saying things out of context repeatedly even though we were having a group conversation,” she said.
Kim and Ha belong to a group locally referred to as “MZ,” combining millennials and Generation Z, who were born between the 1980s and 2010s and are described as being more individualistic, expressive and outspoken.
This particular demographic is often pitted against kkondae and is most likely to use the term as a show of disapproval of the older generation.
People who are older and in a management or leadership position are typically those who fear being called kkondae by MZers.
A 52-year-old office worker surnamed Park said she tries to be careful when talking to her team members so as not to sound condescending.
Since the 52-hour workweek system was introduced, she has ensured that the workload she distributes to junior workers can be handled in that time frame.
“It is very different from when I was a junior. Back then, I had to do what I was told to do. But I will be called kkondae if I maintain that stance,” she said.
Even small talk may not be easy, Park said. She worries that young colleagues may think it is an invasion of privacy when she asks what they did during the weekend or holidays. “It’s not like I want to know about their personal lives. I just don‘t have anything else to talk to them about,” she said.
Chae, a marketing team leader in his late 40s at a company in Seoul, shared similar concerns.
“With the word ’kkondae‘ so widely used now, I find myself worrying about what my juniors would think of me when I do this or say that,” he said.
While admitting that the seniority-based hierarchy at work has its problems, he said the way kkondae is being portrayed in media now makes him feel like the whole world is telling him to kowtow to the young, who are often selfish at work and like to find things to complain about instead of learning.
Kkondae in political context
The clash of MZ and kkondae is not just a workplace issue.
Earlier this month, the ruling People Power Party witnessed an example of that.
Rep. Chung Jin-suk, 61, a five-term lawmaker who is also deputy speaker of the National Assembly, came under fire for criticizing Lee Jun-seok, the 37-year-old leader of the party, over Lee’s surprise visit to Ukraine. Chung said Lee, as the ruling party leader, should have been more prudent when making a decision that could be a sensitive issue for foreign policy.
Chung said the remarks he posted on Facebook were meant as advice for Lee as someone experienced in politics. But the party‘s younger politicians rebuked him for being a kkondae and for looking down on younger party members — even the party’s chairperson — just because of the age difference.
Much of the Democratic Party of Korea‘s struggles to win back voter support revolves around the term “kkondae politics.”
During the campaign for the presidential election in March, the liberal party, then the ruling party, vowed to break away from kkondae politics. Following defeat in the election, Park Ji-hyun, a 26-year-old rookie politician who rose to be the party’s co-chair, openly called on seniors in the party to step down from leadership posts.
She did not call them kkondae, though. She used the term “586 generation,” which refers to those who are now in their 50s, entered university in the 80s and were born in the 60s.
They are the people who led student activism under the authoritarian regime and helped to achieve democracy in Korea. Now they are often referred to as kkondae as their characterization has changed from pro-democracy fighters to a “lucky generation” by their younger peers.
“Luck,” here, means being born to a growing economy, graduating into a job market when a college diploma was enough to land a well-paying job, and sitting on huge amounts of unearned income simply because they bought a home during a real estate market boom.
Generational labeling isn‘t helpful
Although generational rifts exist in any society, it is a particularly pressing issue for South Korea, given its rapidly aging population, long life expectancy, and slowing economy. This means that there will be conflict over resources between the youth, who have to shoulder the burden of supporting the old, and the old, who live increasingly longer after retirement.
In fact, the increased use of the word kkondae seems to correlate with the perception among young people that older generations are clinging to privileges that they do not enjoy.
In a society like Korea, where many social changes have occurred in such a short period, the gap in perception and culture between generations is inevitably large, according to Shin Jin-wook, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University. He is the author of a book with a title that roughly translates to “There’s No Such Generation.”
“Korea is a country where intergenerational understanding and communication is critical in all kinds of social systems such as workplaces, political parties and families,” he said.
The professor also notes that generational conflicts are partly fueled by unfair labeling of certain groups such as the MZ and kkondae.
Those in their 50s are portrayed as the establishment or as hypocritical, while those in their 20s are branded as hypercompetitive and meritocrats, Shin pointed out.
“In this age of inequality, generations are more and more divided into classes, and they cannot be regarded as more homogeneous groups,” he said.