Tall, lanky Park Eun Chun shares a large cafe latte with his mom outside a Starbucks at Seoul's sprawling Coex Mall.
The 18-year-old Pusan native will soon start his freshman year at Korea University as a biology major, and he's been enjoying his winter break by hanging out with friends. And that means spending money: During the past month, he's seen five movies and eaten out at Pizza Hut, Burger King, and local Korean restaurants. It's a money ethic that makes his mom uncomfortable.
"They're spending thousands of won [a few dollars] on a single cup of coffee," she says. "Maybe it's because I'm from the provinces, but I'm still surprised to see they have enough money for that sort of thing."
South Korea's teens and 20-somethings are throwing off the Confucian values of thrift and self-sacrifice to become the nation's most influential consumer force.
"The traditional value system in Korea was based on working hard, saving a lot, and preparing for the future," says Cho Sang Hyun, a consultant at the Bain & Co. consulting firm in Seoul. "But the new generation has the feeling that they should enjoy things while they are still young." And, Mr. Cho marvels, "they don't feel guilty about it."
Korea's shift to a more youth-oriented consumer culture is changing the tenor of city life in Seoul. Myongdong and Dongdaemun, two of the capital city's oldest shopping districts, have repackaged themselves to appeal directly to young people's sense of fun, luring them with gleaming video-game arcades, outdoor stages for live dance acts, and the omnipresent beat of Korean pop music.
Round-the-clock convenience stores - an innovation relatively late to catch on in South Korea - have mushroomed in number on the back of a predominantly young customer base looking for quick snacks on the run. New multiplex cinemas do brisk business as a young movie-going audience laps up the latest offerings from a revitalized local film industry. And foreign fast-food chains, including McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and KFC, are adding new locations by the dozens every year, driven almost completely by demand among teens and 20-somethings.
A confluence of social trends has elevated young Koreans to their newfound status as consumer trendsetters, observers say. Household incomes rose sharply throughout the 1980s and 1990s before the economic crisis, enabling parents to give their children bigger spending allowances - a trend reinforced by the country's falling birthrate and a rise in the number of two-income families.
At the same time, surging numbers of youth-targeted businesses increased the need for cheap, part-time labor, expanding once-scarce opportunities for high school and college students to earn extra spending money and enhancing their independence from parental control and guidance.
Meanwhile, cultural reference points for young people - and their exposure to the more freewheeling ways of the West - broadened dramatically. The government's easing of travel restrictions in 1989 led to a sharp increase in the number of young people traveling and studying abroad. For those staying at home, satellite TV and the Internet brought the rest of the world to them. The Internet boom also helped boost the social standing and cultural influence of the Web-savvy young generation, observers say.
"The more self-directed lifestyles of the young have become the norm not just among young people but in society as a whole," says David Richardson, managing director in Korea of the market research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres. "When the dotcoms took off, that really accelerated the change. Young people had a more creative approach, and suddenly they had skill sets that the interconnected world needed."
The new spending habits of young Koreans are sometimes difficult for older Koreans to accept, says Kim Soon-hyun, a 21-year-old art-school student, who enjoys a $227 monthly allowance from her parents.
Ms. Kim is unwinding on a bench at the Coex Mall after seeing "Lord of the Rings" and sharing a spaghetti lunch at the nearby Bennigan's restaurant.
"My grandmother tells me that I spend too much, and that I should get into the habit of saving more," she says. "My dad says the same thing. But I think my spending is reasonable."