The sad song of those in their 50s

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The sad song of those in their 50s

The very last South Korean baby boomers born in 1963 will turn 50 this year. The Korean baby boom generation usually refers to those born between 1955 and 1963. The number totals around 7.15 million, most of whom are credited with helping conservative ruling party candidate Park Geun-hye beat her liberal opposition rival by approximately 3 percent in the December presidential election.

Their intentional collaboration and contribution to the election is greatly appreciated by the ruling party, but resented by the younger generation. In the eyes of the younger generation, they have benefited from the economic and real estate peak and now enjoy the fruits of power and wealth at their comfortable high-rise homes in posh southern Seoul neighborhoods. They have no idea about the painfully intense competition their younger generation experienced since school amid thinner job opportunities. They merely joined forces in the last election in order to safeguard their status quo.

They are clearly misunderstood. Behind the 3-percent win are not hard-core conservatives in their 50s, but the 5 million baby boomers in the middle- or lower-income bracket. They are more losers than winners. They have retired or are near retirement. They are heavily indebted, with no end to their support to elderly parents amid their extended life spans and children who cannot land decent-paying jobs despite all the costly private tutoring and college tuition.

Feeling of insecurity due to the frustrating reality amid few signs of hope in the future motivated them to make the safe and stable choice over a liberal, reform-minded candidate as the next president.

They also bore nostalgic sentiment for their childhood days under the rule of late President Park Chung Hee in the 1960s and 1970s. People were rewarded for honest hard work then. Of 5 million baby boomers in the middle and lower class, 3 million are self-employed and the other 2 million are retired and without jobs. They are easy to find - hanging around outside neighborhood grocery stores or on mountain trails during weekdays.

There are many reasons why they spend so much time on mountains. But thanks to them, the country’s mountain-climbing and trekking supplies industry became one of the world’s best.

Few remember and appreciate their contribution in turning the country into an economic powerhouse. They worked around the clock without any complaints behind the cramped industrial lines during the 1970s and 1980s. With their meager monthly salary of 50,000 won ($45), they sometimes dressed up and got pleasure from listening to American rock and roll and dancing to disco. They got pleasure from sipping sugary coffee in smoky coffee shops served by women in thick make-up and tight mini-skirts. All of them were addressed as “sir” or “boss.” Their precious leisure time was sometimes disrupted by intelligence spies working undercover to hunt down activists among industrial workers. At least 10 would look up when the owner of the coffee salon would call out, “Phone for boss Kim!”

A decade later, some of them indeed became bosses running small trade businesses of their own. They graduated from college and got on the plane to work overseas. They somehow came back home with business orders. They produced, exported and built - practically running the growth engine of the Korean economy. The boys who played in streams with their rubber shoes grew up to work in one of the world’s largest shipbuilding industries and their peers who played in dirty streets later helped to build the country’s largest automakers.

But 10 years later, their precious factories had to be shut down amid a financial crisis that led to harsh restructuring and international bailout. As much as 30 percent of the baby-boom generation lost their jobs during that period. Those who survived are now joining them. The average retirement age is at 52.7 with their average assets amounting to 300 million won homes and cash assets around 100 million won, and with poorer prospects of getting their pension or employment entitlement benefits in their old age.

They must somehow finance their children’s tuition fees, marriages and live on apartment rent and retirement funds without any other solid income for at least eight years. As a result, they are exiting the middle class en mass.

They loved the sound of the campaign promise to make 70 percent of the population middle class. But in reality, they know they will be moving into the poor neighborhood and rank when they reach 60.

The graying age, however, still longs to work. They hang hope on the president’s promise to push the retirement age to 60. In Japan, the government implemented extension of the retirement age and protracted jobs for baby boomers to prevent social repercussions from mass retirement and poverty.

Japanese companies and labor unions joined forces to share jobs and wages. The government encouraged them with employment and tax incentives. Employers who maintain staff aged over 60 by paying them just half of what the rest on the payroll get take up 60 percent of Japanese companies. It is how Japan sustained its middle class amid a prolonged recession and an aging society.

But Korean baby boomers are kicked out of their companies once their 25 years of service is up. The number increases by the thousands every year. So far, soju and mountains are their only comfort. What they need is work and not condescension, actions and not rhetoric.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

*The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University.

by Song Ho-keun
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