Home tarnishes the golden yearsThe Asian financial crisis had more than a profound effect on Korea’s economy. It also set off cultural ripples that are still propagating through society.
A case in point is employee retirement. One consequence of the crisis, which shook the nation in 1997, was corporate restructuring programs that eliminated thousands of workers in their 50s. The fallout has not ended, with some firms now dipping as deep as workers in their 40s when trimming staff.
Earlier this month Korea Telecom offered retirement to approximately 5,500 employees who had been with the firm at least 15 years. Considering that Korean men land their first job in their late 20s, after serving 30 months of military service, 15 years of work would put them in their early to mid 40s.
Early retirement is creating a problem that goes beyond earning a living. After all, with studies putting the average lifespan of a Korean man at 73, a retiree in his 40s has several decades of job potential. But there is also the potential to cause trouble, including trouble at home.
Park Chul-hwan, who retired three years ago at 59, lives with his wife, Kim Jeong-ja, but they are seldom together. Home to each of them is a separate room in their small Seoul apartment, which the other refrains from entering. They use separate phones and do not even use the same television set.
“Men at least work outside the home until they retire. But after they leave their jobs, we women have to look after them for the rest of our lives,” Ms. Kim says. “Since my husband retired, he has been on my back constantly, asking me, ‘Where are you going?’ or telling me to balance the household budget.” And even worse, Ms. Kim says, her husband constantly asks her to fetch him water.
“Don’t I have the right to be happy too?” she asks.
Mr. Park apparently is unmoved by his wife’s screeds. He says he spent all his life working long hours so his family would have food on the table, but after his retirement his wife morphed into a termagant, targeting him with fusillades of contempt.
“When I was working, my wife spent time at fitness clubs and high school reunions, and now she tells me she does not even want to spend time with me,” Mr. Park says. “I feel like I have been victimized.”
Hwang Myeong-hee, who will soon turn 61, says she hated her husband so much after he retired that she did not even want to hear the sound of his breathing. Ms. Hwang says she heard a joke at her high school reunion that in their 30s a married couple face each other when they sleep; they face the ceiling in their 40s and slumber with their backs to each other by the age of 50.
“By the time they reach their 60s, couples are using different rooms, and in their 70s they do not even know what room their spouse is sleeping in,” Ms. Hwang jokes.
In a survey this year conducted by the Korea Legal Aid Center For Family Relations, a majority of the 443 women in the study, who were above 60 years of age, complained that their marriage was coming apart. According to the center’s evaluation of the data, the women had more friction with their spouses than with any other member of the family.
The women had less communication with their husband than with their daughters-in-law or their grandchildren. In some cases the lack of conversation led to divorce.
With people living longer, the prospects of a couple remaining married over the span of their lives are diminishing. According to data by the Korea National Statistical Office, in the year 2000, 23,000 couples who had been married for more than 20 years got divorced. The figure accounts for 23 percent of all divorces reported that year. In the same study, the number of divorced couples who had been married more than 20 years is eight times larger than the number of break-ups reported 10 years before.
Divorce is not an easy option for most Korean couples. Deeply engrained Confucian values hold that ending a marriage is immoral. But since most marriages in the generation now reaching retirement age were arranged by the couples’ parents, any incompatibility glossed over out of respect for familial ties and traditional beliefs has had plenty of time to fester. So with society becoming less rigid, couples are more willing to call it quits. Also, sacrifices of personal happiness to keep their children from having to bear the stigma of being from a broken home are no longer necessary once the children have gone off to college or are themselves married.
Of course, nature has a lot to say about a couple’s compatibility later in life. “One of the reasons for spousal feuding is changes in gender roles and hormonal changes that take place with age,” says Kim Tae-hyeon, a professor of family culture at Sungshin Women’s University.
Studies show that both women and men undergo changes in their body chemistry as they age. In their 50s, both sexes may find themselves with a changed disposition. By the time their children are in college many women are in a stage of their life where they are more aggressive and independent. Husbands, on the other hand, may become homebodies. Within older couples, the women often complain that their husbands have become nosy, quizzing their wives on their whereabouts.
The men have trouble communicating with their wives because, having spent most of their time working outside the home, they are not accustomed to family discourse, says Han Hye-gyeong, a professor at Honam University. This is also a result of Confucian values, which discourage men from sensitive talk with their spouse that erodes the man’s status in the home. The older men are also more likely to be demanding an attitude carried over from their many years on the job.
Gwon Soo-ja, a 58-year-old housewife, says that at her high school reunion many of her friends talked about educating their husbands on how to live after retirement. The informal program, according to Ms. Gwon, should include introducing the husband to the kitchen, a place most Korean men seldom enter. Ms. Gwon says her friends recommended that she find a hobby that both she and her husband would enjoy.
Shin Yeon-hee of the Korea Legal Aid Center For Family Relations said men rarely attend education programs for retirees. “The men should try harder and the women should be more considerate of their husbands,” Ms. Shin says.
Professor Kim of Sungshin Women’s University suggests that married couples should plan their post-retirement future earlier and spend more time together when they are young.
by Moon Kyung-ran
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