Time to end Thailand's generation war

Time to end Thailand's generation war

Teenagers declared war on schools' authoritarian rules. A rap song chastising Thai dictators went viral overnight. Angry youths defied state crackdowns for democratic rights. The social media movement "Let's Move Out of This Country" spread like wildfire.

The signs during the past few years have been abundant and clear. Thai youths are fed up and furious. They want change, and they will no longer stay silent.

Thailand's divisive politics is increasingly marked by a "generation war". If the powers-that-be refuse to open up and meet some of the youths' demands for change, the world will soon leave Thailand behind.

The violent crackdown against young protesters at the recent Apec summit was a bad omen. Such brutality explains why 40% of Thai people under 25 say revolution -- not reform -- can only truly bring change to Thailand, according to our data analysis from the World Value Survey.

But there are still ways out of the conflicts.

Admit it. Thailand is run by ageing elites and old beliefs. Growing up as global citizens, thanks to the internet, the youth now have different values and interests. The young want space for creativity and innovation. The old cling to the status quo. Conflicts are inevitable. The challenge is how to overcome violent conflicts so Thailand can move forward.

The first hurdle to overcome is stereotypes. The young generations, particularly Generation Y, are unfairly stereotyped as being "lazy, entitled narcissists". Their reluctance to have children is also condemned as selfishness.

We need facts to win stereotypes. And according to the World Value Surveys, the young and old are not a world apart as believed.

In collaboration with the King Prajadhipok's Institute, the World Value Survey conducted three rounds of surveys in Thailand in 2007, 2013, and 2018 to check Thais' changing values on politics, economy, culture, and trust in public institutions.

Using data from the survey, we divide the sample into five different age groups: the pre-war generation (born before 1945), the baby boomers (born between 1945-1965), Gen X (born between 1966-1979), the millennials or the Gen Y (1980-1995), and Gen Z or those below 25 years old (1996-2010).

The findings: the young and the old still share many values that may serve as a common ground to bridge the difference.

First, democracy.

Young people tend to think that the old dislike democracy. It is not true. According to the survey, all age groups view democracy favourably, although the positive attitude has decreased over time, most likely from rising political problems.

The good news is the consensus that democracy is crucial for the country. So are fair and free elections. They also believe democracy must improve people's work prospects and protect civil rights, although the latter is a lower priority.

On the economy, most people want high economic growth. But they are undecided about what is more important for the country: income equality or higher economic efficiency through strong incentives. The same with success in life, whether it is due to hard work or luck and personal connections.

All age groups agree that Thailand is deep in corruption. Around 45% of them believe all or most officials are corrupt. They also believe that tea money is wrong. So are evading tax or cheating, such as not paying public transport fees.

As for trust in institutions, Thais trust the judiciary the most, followed by local governments, the military, politicians, and political parties -- in that order. In the last survey, however, public trust in the military plunged while faith in the judiciary has also declined.

There are also worrying signs. Among all generations, Gen Z has the least confidence in public institutions. They are also the only generation that believes more in revolution than reform as a means to change society. Perhaps this results from witnessing numerous "reform" initiatives turning out to be hollow words.

Despite frustration with the system, all generations still share overwhelming pride in being Thai. The young, however, fear the most that they cannot provide their children with a good education as the quality of the Thai education system does not show any sign of improvement. Maybe this explains why many in Gen Y and Z do not want to have children.

As expected, the views on parenting have changed with time. For young people, total obedience to parents is obsolete. What they value are the children's independence and creativity.

Contrary to older people's beliefs, the young still uphold the importance of filial piety. A clear majority of people under 25 say they believe children should support their ageing parents.

The survey also debunks the belief that youngsters nowadays do not care about work. It shows Gen Y, and Z still believe work is important, although not as much as their parents.

Relatively speaking, work dedication steadily declines over time in all age groups. It is understandable. With economic development and better income, the need to sacrifice personal life for work naturally lessens.

It is the same with religion. Although Gen Z has the least interest in religion, the level of religious interest has been declining in every age group over time.

The World Value Survey portrays a clear picture of today's youngsters. Apart from supporting democracy, creativity and freedom of expression, Gen Z also has the strongest environmental protection awareness.

Thai society requires these values. History teaches us that young people's fervent beliefs and commitment to freedom and justice have always been what propel society forward.

How, then, to resolve Thailand's ongoing generation war?

For older generations, break our walls of prejudice. Stop thinking of the young as enemies of traditions. The World Value Survey has shown that the young care about their parents and are proud to be Thai. They are just unhappy with the system. Think of them as our children. And respect their rights as citizens. If we want them to have children, let us make Thai society liveable with secure jobs and a better welfare system.

If we want Thailand to survive technological disruptions, give young people room for creativity and independence. Reform the education system, and expand their learning spaces.

If we don't want them to move to other countries, let us stop forcing conformity. Stop using raw power. Be open to differences.

Ask ourselves what we want for Thai society. If we want democracy, civil rights, rule of law, economic equality, and better environmental protection, our vision is no different from young people's.

To realise our goals, older generations must stop monopolising the political sphere. Open doors for young people to enter politics. Work with them, not get rid of them. The older generations now control manpower and resources. Without all of our support, Thailand cannot get out of the rut.

The youth movement must also do its part to bridge the gap. If you want the motto "End It All in Our Generation" to come true, you should realise your generation alone cannot make it happen.

Gen Z, after all, consists of only 19% of the population. And only 13% vote in general elections. Your Gen Z may be at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement, but you must win the hearts and minds of people in other generations to make changes happen.

Here's the strategy: Focus on common ground, not differences. Build alliances. And avoid attacking the identity and pride of people in other generations unnecessarily.

Empathy is the key. When the ageing elites and angry youths can establish common ground for common good, Thailand has a chance to move forward and catch up with the rest of the world.

Somkiat Tangkitvanich, PhD, is the president of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). This article is an excerpt from his keynote speech at the 2022 TDRI annual conference on 'How to Rejuvenate Thailand'.

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