Only piety is no longer enough

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Only piety is no longer enough

“Please don’t mind, I just want a bowl of rice soup,” wrote Mr. Choi, 69, who lived alone and had worked on a construction site. He ended his life, in which he had suffered full of regrets and alone, last year. Sadly these silent suicides are not infrequent cases in Korea.

According to a study by the Korean National Statistical Office, the number of people over the age of 65 committing suicide is nearly four times the average of developed countries, making the country’s rate of such deaths the highest in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

So why are South Korean seniors so prone to suicide? Maybe we can find a couple of clues from some common scenes.

Having lived in Korea for eight months, I constantly see elderly people collecting cardboard and plastic bottles, lugging them to trash yards where they receive several dollars in exchange.

As a foreigner, I am always confused about why many South Korean elderly people still need to work at such an old age. In my hometown in China, most seniors choose to enjoy their life after retirement.

Realizing the importance of social welfare, the government built a public pension system in 1988. However in most cases, the payments are not enough to cover the basic living costs.

A 2011 government study found only 4 out of 10 people aged 65 and above received benefits under this scheme, and the country’s elderly poverty rate is the highest among rich nations. Losing economic security and getting older, the elderly have to work to support themselves in spite of their old age.

According to Confucius, “Piety is the foundation of all virtues.” Historically, the Korean public pension system has been based on the Confucian social theory of “filial piety.” Korean parents try their best to bring up their children and children are duty-bound to take care of their parents when they get older to repay their upbringing.

However, it is undeniable that there’s a big disadvantage of this system: What can parents do if their children are unwilling to support them?

Over the past 15 years, the percentage of children who think they should look after their parents has shrunk from 90 percent to 37 percent, according to government polls. Jae-Chul Noh, a professor of sociology at Hoseo University, attributed this situation to a byproduct of Korea’s fast economic transformation.

Due to the perception that people who can produce more economic value are more valuable socially, elderly citizens are seen as less worthy of care or security.

Even further, family structure isn’t as rigid as before, so children supporting their parents isn’t taken for granted. Today, many Koreans are unwilling to live with their parents under the same roof, which makes their parents feel lonely and become depressed.

“The collapse of communities and the collective ostracization of elderly citizens are driving them over the edge,” explains Kim Dong-hyun, who teaches social medicine at Hallym University.

Shocked by the severe suicide rate, many Koreans are calling for the Korean government to promote familial piety and appeal to Koreans to take charge of their parents’ pensions. However, before taking any action to pull down the rate of elderly suicides, the fact should be clear to Koreans that only depending on piety is no longer enough.

by Liu Lina, Exchange student from China at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies

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