What is feeding the “spoon” social inequality theory in South Korea, and why are social mobility levels falling?
Spoons are used as social analogy in South Korea to describe the relative head start some people receive due to the family they were born into or the wealth they have directly inherited. People from wealthy families are known as “gold spoons” and are contrasted with people that do not enjoy family wealth or connections, from lower income backgrounds, the “dirt spoons” of society. Social mobility is becoming an increasingly important subject for South Koreans as success in life if increasingly being seen as a matter of your family background than how hard you work. President Moon Jae-in is even thought to be losing support due to his failures in addressing the plight of the countries dirt spoons and the lack of social mobility. What is behind this modern social class theory of spoons in South Korean culture and why is social mobility and inequality becoming more important to voters?
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Politics and policy failures
Decreasing social mobility in South Korean society is driven by a failure of government policies surrounding social and economic justice, the effort to close income disparity has largely backfired. For example, despite Moon Jae-in's introduction of minimum wage increases led to 20% of the lowest earners seeing a 3.7% fall in income compared with the same period in the previous year. Likewise maximum weekly work hours legislation backfired, with no change in national leisure time, aside from a few companies in Seoul, while bars and restaurants in the capital reported a loss in business following the new law. While many experts argue the the country is overshadowed by their fast-developing and advanced neighbours and failing to catch up, others blame the governments push to establish relations with North Korea as taken precedence over tackling income disparity. Political mismanagement has enabled a strict social hierarchy to solidify in South Korean culture, and government’s policies have failed to address the increasing difficulty lower income individuals and families face in order to better their lives.
In recent years there have been growing trends of the use of gold/dirt spoon in order to describe social standing in South Korea, first being used on the Internet and gradually creeping into the Korean consciousness through a number of recent films covering social issues in the country. In this way then awareness of inequality has grown in South Korea, and attitudes are beginning to reflect this as disenfranchised citizens are progressively speaking out against inequality and against government policy. The Pew Research Centre conducted research into attitudes surrounding inequality finding that South Koreans were most likely to associate success with knowing the right people. However they were also one of the top ranking developed countries to believe that children will be more financially stable than the previous generation, indicating attitudes may not be as negative or defeatist as other countries. In addition Korean Economic Research Institute study of OECD countries shows that Korean income mobility is not that low, comparatively similar to New Zealand and Sweden, which indicates there may be more of a media influence behind attitudes surrounding inequality than a genuine level of despair in society.