Korea’s ‘senior’ shame

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Korea’s ‘senior’ shame


Chang Ha-joon

From the 1970s to the early 1990s, South Koreans were worked the longest hours of any people in the world. Some companies tried to keep workers from going to the restrooms too frequently because they relied on cheaply paid workers turning out as many garments and shoes as they possibly could in any given work period.

Our working hours have been reduced greatly, but Korea still ranks among the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development advanced economies in terms of work hours. Koreans work 2,090 hours a year, the longest after Mexicans’ 2,250 hours. Korea maintained the top place until surrendering it to Mexico in 2007.

Mexico is the poorest country in the OECD with a per capita income that falls short of $10,000. It is understandable that the country’s work hours are lengthy. In terms of individual incomes, South Korea is ninth from the bottom in the OECD and yet its work hours are second highest. In other words, Koreans work too long in spite of their income standards.

What’s funny is that people without permanent jobs also work excessively. According to recently published OECD data, Koreans work 10.5 years on average after formally retiring at the age of 60. Koreans actually work three to six years longer than people in countries whose income are just half theirs. Chileans, for example, work 7.4 years after retirement, Mexicans 5.5 years, and Turks 4.2 years.

Post-retirement jobs are mostly part time and pay poorly. It would be helpful for both the individual and society if a person could go on working in the area of his or her expertise and be adequately rewarded after retirement- without having to spending a full work week in the office. That’s an idea being floated around these days.

But in Korea, most retirees leave their areas of expertise and work in self-employed businesses in order to earn basic living costs. About 60 percent of our self-employed people are over 50. Self-employed businesses are risky and rarely lucrative. People come under more stress running mom-and-pop business than when they worked in offices. Post-retirement life is hard on the mind as well as the body.

Koreans cannot afford a life of leisure after retirement. And yet the earnings from their post-retirement careers are hardly enough to cover their lifestyles. Pensions and social security programs for senior citizens are meager. Whatever they earn from part-time jobs goes to sustaining the minimum cost of living. The poverty rate among people over 65 is 48.5 percent, 3.4 times higher than the OECD average. Retirees work longer, but make a poor living.

Excessive work and harsh living conditions have translated into one of the highest level of suicides among senior citizens. Before Korea joined the OECD in the mid-1990s, the suicide rate hovered below the average of the rich club. It shot up after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Now Korea’s suicide rate is triple the OECD average. Suicides by the elderly contributed to the sharp rise. Of 100,000 deaths among people aged 65, 80.3 are caused by suicides as of 2010, compared with an OECD average of 20.9.

Who exactly are these people stripped of comfort at the end of tough lives and forced to put an end to it all in poverty? They are the Koreans who were whipped by employers to work 12- to 15-hour days in factories in the 1960s and 1970s. They are the people who had to neglect their families to help their employers become global brands. They are the farmers who dutifully followed state farming campaigns to feed their countrymen with local rice. Without them, today’s Korea with its glitzy technology, global corporate brands and sophisticated and luxurious lifestyles would not have been possible. Yet we have turned our backs on them and pushed them into lonely and miserable deaths.

In the old days, the society could have fulfilled their filial duties to help the elderly solve their problems. But more and more families are scattered around the country or overseas. It is time the country seriously debate a way to effectively raise social security for senior citizens. The entire society has to support its elders.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.

JoongAng Ilbo, June 5, Page 31 ]

*The author is a professor of economics at the University of Cambridge.

By Chang Ha-joon

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