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Spoon-Class Theory

  Recently, a new phrase "Spoon-Class Theory" entered the vocabulary. The theory assumes that each person’s life is determined by their parents' assets and then classifies them into some solid groups. This is a quite pessimistic view, criticizing a society in which one cannot rise above a humble beginning.


What's Spoon-Class Theory?

  This theory defines new kinds of social hierarchy through his/her standard of living. The theory originated from the Western saying, "He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth". In Korea, criteria for being rich (and thus the spoon) is more diverse, ranging from gold, silver, bronze to dirt. This hierarchy is defined by one’s parent's assets, job, house and income. By a standard spreading on the Internet, for example, if someone's parents have a property value higher than 2 billion won or their annual income is higher than 200 million won, then their children are said to have been born with a golden spoon in their mouths. Likewise, the other spoons have their own specific definitions. This spoon-class theory has been growing in popularity since 2015, implicating a bleak society that has very little room for a self-made person..


What's Wrong with the Theory?

  As the theory is most prevelant among the youth of today, it raises some problems. The first thing is that the theory intensifies “relative deprivation” among the younger generations. This sense of deprivation occurs as they compare themselves to social norms that are not absolute. As the prevalent theory implies that escaping from one's class is so hard, a sense of comparative deprivation is extremely serious. Individuals might stop making efforts to escape the economic status to which they belong. What makes this situation worse is that the theory leads to some individuals abandoning themselves to despair. The poor suffer from extreme feelings of deprivation, as they recognize a harsh hierarchy that can't be changed. Finally, a sense of frustration may lead such individuals to give up hope of bettering themselves.


  Second, the spoon-class theory leads to “cognitive deconstruction.” Cognitive deconstruction manifests in an unwillingness in individuals to give their lives meaning and they become lethargic. Inspiring oneself through a recognition of the value of one’s achievements is the driving force of live. But this is serious hampered under serious cognitive deconstruction. Since the advent of the spoon-class theory, the number of individuals who think they cannot get out of the class to which they belong has been rising rapidly. Those who have lost their sense of self have no ability to determine socially appropriate behavior, and finally, they commit brutal crimes or even suicide.


Elite Student Suicide

  With the spread of the spoon-class theory, relative deprivation and cognitive deconstruction have been occurring more frequently, causing serious social problems. An example below illustrates the seriousness of this matter.


  The year 2015 ended with some unwelcome news. A student, at the age of 19, committed suicide by jumping off the top of a building. What makes this more regrettable is that he was a student attending Seoul National University (SNU), which is the best university in Korea. The student’s suicide note detailed the reason for his actions thusly, "It is inevitable that we succumb to a society made up by the logic of the man who is first-born, the rich, or the man who has all the power." Besides this, he lamented a society in which the spoon-class theory is rampant, mentioning the "dirt spoon." This incident implies that there is a tough social hierarchy that is invisible and insurmountable, even for the elite student.


Social Background

Strong Hereditary Succession

  According to a report conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA), there are some coincidences of “levels of education” and “occupations” between a parents’ generation and their filial generation. The percentage of the coincidences of “educational levels” between fathers (born in 1869~1974) and their sons reached 79.7%. This figure reached 89.6% between fathers (born in 1975~1995) and their sons. This illustrates that the succession of “educational levels” continues to get stronger. Moreover, the similarity of “occupations” between a parents’ generation and their filial generation is also a severe problem. Recently, the similarity of “occupations” between fathers who work as simple laborers and their sons recorded five times higher than the average. These results show why the spoon-class theory has been gaining traction these days.


“Give Up” Generation

  Nowadays, there are too many new generations, such as the “Sam Po,” “O Po,” and “N Po” generations. These generations refer to the younger generations that give up some important things like date, marriage, childbirth, and so on. These are the results of the unemployment crisis, skyrocketing housing prices, sharp inflation and other social pressures. For example, the average for wedding expenses reached 274 million won, 15.2% higher than last year, which means that the younger generations have a heavy burden. As a result, the number of marriages has been at a record low for two years in a row. This “Give Up” generation is a reflection of our society.


No Self-made Man in Korea

  According to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, five Koreans took their place on the list of the 400 richest people in the world. However, it turns out that their wealth is all the inherited, not the self-made. On the contrary, of the 125 Americans ranked the list, 89 are self-made. In addition, even in China, only 1 out of the 29, who ranked on list, were inherited-rich. These regrettable facts, unfortunately, contribute to younger generations settling for the present without struggling to overcome their poor social status.


Different Start from Beginning

  Moreover, the gap between the rich and the poor, in terms of encountering social opportunities, widened among younger generations, with the increasing social burdens. That is, a child born with a gold or silver spoon in his mouth encounters many chances to achieve success. On the other hand, a child born of a poor family, called the "dirt spoon" by the spoon-class theory, usually applies for educational loan, and the loan will weigh him down as he enters into the society. So, there's little possibility for him to escape from poverty. Actually, according to recent research conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs (KIHASA), 35.1% of those born to poor families have continued to stay poor, while only 2.9% have escaped poverty.


  In order to learn more about this theory as well as to ask for expert advice, The Inha Times interviewed Lee Byeong Hun, a professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University.


The Inha Times (IT) : Recently, a new phrase "Spoon-Class Theory" was coined. Are there any special circumstances that led to the emergence of this phrase?

Lee Byeong Hun : Yes, indeed. When people note a a newly-coined phrase, there must be certain reasons because the word reflects the reality of society. In this case, the phrase "Spoon-Class Theory" implies that we are living in a sad reality in which there are inequalities and discrimination between social classes. I'm afraid that there are severe gaps between the rich and the poor. In fact, it happens all over the world, but the problem is that the situation in Korea goes beyond that seen abroad. As certain patterns are passed on from parents to their children, the wealth gap has become a structural issue, unfortunately. That is, a man's road to success, his future standard of living, and so on are strongly influenced by his parent's riches. These are the reflections of our miserable society, I think.


IT: What do you think of this phenomenon?

Lee Byeong Hun : Like I said before, those who have more wealth get more chances and become more powerful. And this cycle strengthens the power of the upper classes. On the other hand, those who have less wealth can't escape their hardships in life, and in sequence, their children would suffer from this repeating situation. I'm afraid, the support of one’s parents has become absolutely stronger than ever before. It's so stifling, indeed. Someone who's in the high class may say it's just a result of a competitive society. But I strongly think that there are several unreasonable factors that have contributed to the irrational and hierarchic structure of our society.


IT : Is it really difficult to become a self-made man in our current society, as the “Spoon-Class Theory” implies?

Lee Byeong Hun : Yes, now it is. Until a few years ago, there was always the case of a black hen laying white eggs, meaning rising from a humble family was possible enough. It was an open society, in which with effort meant that anyone could improve his or her social standing. But now, it is just an old story. We are living in a closed and restricted society. It is a shame that we are living a contemporary but really different life.


IT : Is there a solution to this current situation?

Lee Byeong Hun : In fact, that's highly interrelated with the democratization of the economy and universal welfare, which are hot topics in the media. There are three possible solutions. First, the poor should, at least, be freed from their poverty being passed down to their children. This would be a stepping-stone for a future society in which everyone can live like a decent human being. Then the whispering about the 'dirt spoon' would subside. Second, the law should regulate the 'strongest takes all' structure. In the industrial system, the upper class and the lower class are correlated indeed, and they share the benefits. But the problem is that the upper class, who has all the power, takes most of the benefits, letting the lower class fall to the poverity. Universal welfare is a third way. This would be possible through education, especially 'public education'. When public education improves, there would be less private education and educational opportunities would then be equal for everyone.


IT : And the last question. Is there anything you want to tell Inha University students?

Lee Byeong Hun : There would be threetypes of people. To fall into despair, to overcome oneself, or to strive to change this society. The former two types can’t improve society for a better life. What we need in order to make a startling change is a unified public voice. Now, worrying about getting a job is more important for the young generation than anything else, so they are less concerned about the state of our society than the previous generations. Social participation and a raising of the public voice are really important for most youngsters. Professor Jang Ha Sung, of Korea University, said, “It’s time for outrage.” So, I would like to tell the students to make their voices loud and sincere so as to demand the society of their dreams. Thank you.


  It is true that the economic situation is quite bad and the social burdens placed on the younger generations have been growing. But the circumstances of one’s birth is not the critical factor; rather, the only reason of "no rise from a humble family" is that individuals imprison themselves in a stiff hierarchy that defines them based on their parents' wealth. Although, the best policy is to reduce the gap between the rich and poor, it's also important not to put oneself down by blaming poverty.


이준  junei95@naver.com

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