Have you heard of the “spoon class theory”, a term widely used among online communities in South Korea? It refers to the idea that individual’s success in life solely depends on being born into parents of high socioeconomic status. According to this ‘theory’, the influence of parents’ socioeconomic status on children’s becomes greater these days, and is especially strong in Korean society. With increasing youth unemployment rates and more competitive race in education in South Korea, research has been conducted on whether the “spoon class theory” is valid in reality.

An individual’s socioeconomic status is usually measured by job privilege, education level, and economic status. The “spoon class theory” argues that these variables have direct impact on children’s life chances, and society is considered to have high levels of inequality if this impact increases. In the case of South Korea, it has been long considered that high levels of education can overcome the impact of parents’ socioeconomic status and furthermore lead an individual to a successful life. In relation to this, according to Chang (2016), Korean students’ reading literacy increased from 2000 to 2009 , and their reading literacy in 2009 was high in terms of both average and percentage of high/low scoring students among those of OECD countries. The effect of parental socioeconomic status on children’s reading literacy in South Korea was much lower than in other OECD countries in both 2000 and 2009, although the rate increased in between. This means that the inequality of educational opportunity deteriorated in Korea during the early 2000s.

To be more specific, with parents’ and children’s education levels, Choi and Lee (2018) show that the gap by parental education in the completion of any types of colleges (junior and 4-year) widened until the 1960s’ birth cohort and then began to narrow. The gap in the completion of 4-year colleges widened for a little bit longer until the 1970’s, when it started to decline. The results show that the influence of parents’ education level on children’s decreased. When evaluating the P80/P20 gap, the influence is found to be more stable. At least, the education inequality is not especially increasing these days, and not exceptionally serious in South Korea in relative terms, unlike in the “spoon class theory”.



Chang, Sang-soo. 2016. “Widening Gap: The Increasing Influence of Parental Socioeconomic Status on Children’s Academic Achievement in Korea.” Korean Journal of Sociology 50(5): 107-140.

Choi, Seongsoo and Subin Lee. 2018. “Has Inequality of Educational Opportunity Grown in Korea?: Cohort Trends of Gaps in Educational Attainment by Parental Education over the 20th Century.” Korean Journal of Sociology 52(4): 77-113.

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