THE bestselling book of 2018 The 90s are Coming by Lim Hong-taek has become the bible for those who wish to understand the mindset and behavior of Koreans born in the 1990s. Today, it has established itself as the go-to book for those who find themselves uttering the line “back in my day…” It is also an interesting psychological report for the younger generation who, upon reading, will realize that their own actions may be somewhat of an enigma for their seniors. As part of the “90s generation” clan myself, this review aims to fact-check the author’s analysis of Korea’s youth. Rest assured, The 90s are Coming is not another patronizing voice dismissing the legitimate difficulties of the youth as “growth pains.” Instead, the author uses recent statistics, trends, and examples to reach logical and well-founded conclusions about the youth culture in Korea.
The 90s generation, lazy or efficient?
The first key characteristic of the 90s generation is simplicity, says the author. The 90s generation enjoys shortening words or using only the first syllables of a word. The author reveals his deep understanding of the 90s generation sub-culture by explaining the origins of some slang terms that most people use without giving them much thought. While kkon-dae**s dismiss the 90s generation’s preference for SparkNotes*** as sheer laziness, the author understands that the 90s generation’s love for efficiency drives them towards simplifying everything. As he puts it, “There is no economic reason for them to invest more than 10 minutes on a single text when one considers the return on investment rate.” Instead of investing one’s time in a single source, students of the 90s generation know that they can accumulate more and, at times, better information by surfing through various platforms.
While the author skims over the negative repercussions of setting simplicity as a top priority—probably in an effort to avoid being labeled a kkon-dae—the 90s generation should recognize the problems of shortening everything, the most pressing being their lack of concentration skills. We are too used to skimming over the first and last sentences of a long text and have become easily irritable when instructed to read a book from cover to cover. As a result, our concentration skills and patience have, and are, deteriorating. However, both skills are important when making well-thought-out, prudent decisions, and thinking on one’s own terms. Accuracy should be our top priority, not just efficiency. While SparkNotes is helpful for remembering the general storyline for a literature class quiz, we should not forget that the real deal is the actual book with expressions and specific ideas that SparkNotes summaries simply cannot convey.
The second characteristic of the 90s generation is their love for byeong-mat—humor that is crude and dumb. Byeong-mat is everywhere in Korea, from byeong-mat redubbed movie clips to byeong-mat themed advertisements. The author does a great job of introducing popular byeong-mat contents, explaining that companies must recognize this trend as it can boost their corporate image dramatically. At one point he implies that the economic difficulties in South Korea has prompted youths to define themselves as losers, a key trait of byeong-mat, and that this is why it is so popular among the 90s generation. Adopting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Lim further suggests the theory that the 90s generation considers humor and byeong-mat as part of their self-actualization process.
However, there are shortcomings in the author’s analysis of byeong-mat. While it is impossible to pinpoint a single reason why byeong-mat became so prevalent, it seems highly unlikely that those of the 90s generation actively consume byeong-mat to fulfill self-actualization. Rather, the consumption seems more likely to be connected to their preference for authentic humor and their active use of YouTube. These byeong-mat YouTube channels directly contrast with the KBS comedy program Gag Concert, which is representative of old school comedy. For decades, Gag Concert was one of the funniest and most popular shows in Korea, with 35% viewer ratings at its peak. Meanwhile, its most recent viewer ratings have plummeted to 4%. Nowadays, people prefer to watch various YouTube channels that are more sensitive to trends with the extra perk of lax censorship. While Gag Concert is staged and reuses the same format and catchphrase for several episodes, popular byeong-mat YouTube channels like “Wassup Man” and “Work Man” aim to be more genuine, are more receptive to viewer suggestions, and are fluid in their formats. Furthermore, Gag Concert is infamous for having a strict atmosphere with a stiff hierarchical system. Even the funniest of comedians would be scared to voice their opinions and showcase their own skits in such a top-down decision-making environment. On the other hand, YouTube channels have no hierarchy; the only rule is to entertain.
The value of raw honesty
The final trait of those born in the 90s is high regard for honesty. In fact, this is the central trait that the older generation and companies should be aware of. In the 1980s and 90s, a company was like a family that workers should be loyal to. However, after Korea’s economic breakdown in 1997 where millions of workers were dismissed, the idea of treating the company as part of one’s identity became obsolete. Despite this change, some companies still demand that the 90s generation employees sacrifice themselves for the company by working past their labor hours and giving up their vacations and weekends. These kkon-daes often frown upon their employees when they leave work at the precise time they should be leaving. If employees refuse to work overtime, kkon-daes would turn and scoff at the 90s generation by saying that they “lack ambition” and “have no determination.” On the other hand, in the eyes of the 90s generation, the company has lied to them about their working conditions thus provoking their disloyalty. The author cautions that this does not mean that the 90s generation employees are demanding to work less; instead, they are merely willing to do the work they have signed up for. Lim advises readers that in order for the 90s generation to become valuable employees, corporations must create an efficient working environment and, instead of forcing loyalty, they should provide them with incentives to be loyal.
Companies must also work on being honest with their consumers. Instead of investing in flashy advertisements, the 90s generation consumers prefer to have no advertisements in exchange for higher quality products. In other words, the 90s generation are smart consumers. Some may argue that being a smart consumer is not a trait specific to the 90s generation, which is indeed true. However, the reason the 90s generation consumers are more difficult to assess is because they find it unnecessary and tedious to give feedback to companies. With a plethora of other brands to switch sides to, they do not see the point of putting effort into improving a company that has already failed them once. Instead, their complaints are mostly heard by other consumers. To the 90s generation, a violation of trust between the company and the consumer is an insult not only to the individual, but to the consumer body as a whole. To persuade the 90s generation consumers that they are capable of improving, companies must be completely honest, giving customers the respect they rightfully deserve.
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Recently, one of my favorite YouTube channels “Discovery Korea” was met with angry backlash after secretly replacing their YouTube channel editor. Viewers were furious that the channel pretended that the fan-favorite editor had been on a long break when, in fact, he had been replaced. “Discovery Korea” had satisfied the 90s generation by re-editing their videos into “simple” clips and hiring an editor skilled in “byeong-mat humor.” However, by failing to disclose the truth behind the previous editor’s replacement, they disregarded the third mantra—“honesty”—which put a damper on the channel’s popularity. It is not just “Discovery Korea” making mistakes either. Many organizations are making similarly ill-made decisions due to their ignorance of the 90’s generation. In-between this messy generational transit, The 90s are Coming may be the guide you were looking for; a guide that can prepare you for the inevitable arrival of a new era.
*The 90s refers to those born in the 1990s.
**A Korean slang akin to the word “boomer.”
***A website that uploads book analyses.