The harsh truth for Korea’s seniors

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The harsh truth for Korea’s seniors


To Korean baby boomers like myself, retiring has become a familiar concept. Many of my friends have already done so. Some cheerfully dream about a second career, while others struggle to get used to retired life.

“What should I do?” I asked my wife, who seemed to already have an answer prepared.

“You have to do something, no matter what,” she said, adding that staying active will help keep me healthy. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked such an obvious question.

These days, the only leisurely retirement to be found in Korea is on soap operas. Most retirees have to work into old age as they don’t have enough savings. The sad truth for Korea’s senior citizens is that they can’t expect a comfortable old age; as long as they’re alive, they have to work.

According to a recent report published by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, 41 percent of our senior citizens between the ages of 65 and 69 were employed in 2011, more than twice the OECD average of 18.5 percent. As they approach 70, four out of 10 seniors are working. And there are many more who want to work but can’t find a job. Only a small percentage of retirees get to kick back without worrying about money.

The OECD statistics found that the actual retirement age, when Korean men become completely free of employment, is 71.4. That’s the second highest in the OECD after Mexico’s 71.5. The retirement age is 69.3 in Japan, 65.2 in the United States, 61.9 in Germany, and 59.1 in France.

However, the average age when Korean workers retire from their main jobs is 53, one of the youngest such ages in the world. But many haven’t financially prepared for being released from their jobs, having spent their lives supporting their aging parents and growing children. So they seek a second career. Job fairs for senior citizens are always crowded with applicants.

However, getting back into the job market is no easy task. While many retirees set up small businesses, not many are successful. The poverty rate of senior citizens is the highest in the OECD, at 45 percent, and the elderly suicide rate is also the highest, at 81.8 deaths per 100,000.

President-elect Park Geun-hye pledged to raise the basic pension for those over 65 to 200,000 won ($189) a month. But the problem is how to fund it. Rumors that the national pension plan paid into by the younger generation will already be spent creates generational discord.

And the youth are struggling too. Many college graduates are jobless and many young people are saying they’ve given up on finding a job, getting married or having children. I wonder how Park can create a happy country for everyone. Is she hiding a magic wand?

*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Bae Myung-bok

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