Neglect of elderly citizens a chart topper that South Korea could do without

By Park Gayoung Source:Global Times Published: 2013-1-22 23:08:01

There are some fields in which South Korea tops the world. From smart phones and girl bands to shipbuilding, South Korea's influence is way out of proportion to its small population of 50 million. But South Korea also tops some less laudable rankings, and when viewed together, shows an aging society that's leaving its older residents out in the cold.

As of 2011, South Korea was No.1 among Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries in terms of percentage of citizens aged between 65 and 69 who are still working.

A surprising 41 percent of these retirement-age citizens are still laboring away. That's more than double the average of 18.5 percent throughout the 32 OECD member nations.

Less than a decade ago, creating more jobs for seniors was a major media issue. However, not many decent jobs have been created for seniors since then, and as of 2011, the effective retirement age outstripped the notoriously senescent Japan, which has already been classified as the world's oldest country.

The effective age of retirement for South Koreans was 71.4 for men and 69.9 for women, second only to Mexico among OECD members. Among the 27 OECD countries reviewed, South Korea is the only country whose retirement age is higher now than it was 40 years ago.

It's not as though this generation of South Koreans hasn't been through enough already. They were born in a war-torn, extremely poor country, went through unpleasant working conditions, and - another No.1 - have the longest work hours per week among OECD nations.

But having to work isn't the worst fate awaiting South Koreans entering their golden years.

The poverty rate among people of over 66 is highest among OECD members at 45 percent. Almost half of South Koreans living in poverty are over 65.

With life after retirement looking so bleak, it's not surprising that South Korea tops yet another ranking - elderly suicide.

Among those aged 75 and above, 160 out of 100,000 people killed themselves in 2010, eight times higher than the average for OECD countries. And the number for elderly citizens between 65 and 74 was 81.8 per 100,000 in the same year - also No. 1 in the OECD.

There are many reasons for this situation, but not many clear solutions.

South Korea only adopted a national pension scheme in 1988. As a result, elderly citizens are not well prepared for life after retirement.

And multiple financial downturns starting with the Asian financial crisis in 1997 have not helped the situation. The savings of the elderly were spent on their children and themselves amid the economic downturns.

This problem might get even more serious with the retirement of the baby boomers just around the corner.

Considering South Korea is not the only aging country in the world, topping these charts indicates that some missteps have been taken and also a lack of attention to the crucial issues regarding senior citizens.

The outgoing President Lee Myung-bak said in his New Year's greeting, "We will be the first to put the crisis behind us and step into the shining light that awaits us beyond this dark tunnel."

Lee's optimistic words, however, mean little when you look at the reality of life for South Korea's elderly.

The gloomy number ones that South Korea holds probably means there is no shining light waiting for South Koreans at the end of their long, hard-earned tunnel. 

The author is a reporter with the Global Times. 

Posted in: Viewpoint

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