Thursday, May 8, 2014

Tackling South Korea’s age boom




As Singapore looks at how to care for an ageing population and keep the seniors gainfully employed, here is a look at how South Korea has moved to tackle the issue

Creating more jobs — the goal was 49,000 last year — and campaigning hard to woo senior citizens back to the workforce. Setting up more community facilities like day care centres so that the seniors have a space to socialise.

In a country where life expectancy is 81 years and rising while the number of centenarians continues to grow, these are some of the steps taken by the Seoul Metropolitan Government to prepare its ageing population, especially, the baby boomers, for their “second life”.

But as efforts to create jobs gather pace, the country is facing resistance from its seniors, who find jobs such as cleaning and security guards meaningless, while others face age discrimination.

Last week, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said he would support re-employment beyond age 65, but added that older workers would have to temper their expectations on wages as they age. In the same week, Australian Treasurer Joe Hockey said his government would seek to raise the country’s retirement age to 70 by the year 2035, again to counter the country’s ageing population.


About 12 per cent of Seoul’s population or 1.15 million are 65 years and above. This figure will double by 2030. South Korea is also grappling with a high elderly suicide rate of 72 for every 100,000 aged 65 and above. Moreover, in Seoul, about 210,000 seniors live alone and about half of them live in poverty.

At the same time, the tradition of the family supporting the elderly is fast eroding. In South Korea, education costs are notoriously high and living costs have been rising over the years, making it hard for the young to support their parents. The percentage of South Korean children who think they should look after their parents has shrunk from 90 per cent to 37 per cent over the past 15 years, The Guardian newspaper reported in January.

Thankfully, this appears to be a shift the older generation has accepted.

“It’s a cultural transition now but the older generation is taking this as something inevitable and this is something we all have to work together to improve, and to reduce the burden on the aged population and also younger generation as well,” said Dr Jun Kwang-woo, professor at the Yonsei University’s Graduate School of Economics, and the former chief executive officer of the National Pension Service.


In 2012, the city started a campaign dubbed the “Double Cropping” programme to encourage seniors aged between 65 and 75 to go back into the workforce. Double Life Support Centres have also been set up to help the elderly find employment and provide job training. The campaign has so far been well received — six out of 10 people aged 55 to 70 want jobs, according to Statistics Korea.

“Many of the elderly also want to live independently from their children and continue to contribute to society but may not be able to because of health problems, so they isolate themselves instead,” said Mr Cho Hyunse, President of HelpAge Korea, a non-profit organisation that champions against silver discrimination.

In the public sector, jobs such as traffic guides for children at schools, carpark attendants and cultural guides at museums and public buildings, among others, have been created. These jobs pay a minimal sum of between 200,000 won (S$244) and 1 million won a month.

But some, especially the baby boomers who are better educated, feel these jobs are not meaningful.

“The intentions of the government are good but I believe that there are older people who want to make a more meaningful contribution to society. And being guides, cleaners or security guards are just meaningless,” said Mr Jung Pan-sik, 58, a semi-retiree.

Instead, the elderly want to contribute their knowledge and do consulting or teaching, said Dr Kim Kyung-Hye, Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Future and Social Policy Research, The Seoul Institute.

In a tight and hypercompetitive labour market where even the young have trouble finding work, getting seniors employed is no easy task.

“Seniors face discrimination when it comes to getting jobs, as companies are worried about them becoming a liability because of their health conditions,” Dr Kim said.


Apart from creating jobs, the government is also ramping up the number of community activity centres in the city, such as Day Care Centres, Cultural Clubs and Senior Citizen Centres, which provide a platform for the elderly to socialise, keep active and enjoy free meals. There are almost 5,000 of these public facilities for seniors in Seoul. However, these centres are seen as places for the middle-lower-income to lower-income people and shunned by those who are better off.

Some stay at home to mind their grandchildren while others choose to stay in Silver Towns, which function like country clubs or condominiums, with classes and activities to keep the seniors active.

At the Noblesse Tower, 30 minutes away from the city centre, there are yoga classes, TV rooms, a gym and a restaurant-like canteen where custom meals are served. The rooms are built with anti-slip tiles and windows are double fitted to prevent elderly suicide.

At 1.5 to 2.5 million won a month, [S$1600 - $2,700 approx] it is out of the reach for many. Yet these facilities are fast gaining popularity with the middle-income seniors.

The government is continuing to improve the infrastructure such as housing for the elderly. In public housing, the first three floors are reserved for inter-generational lower-income families. It also has plans to build 300 units in 20 buildings for boarding houses and group homes for the poor single elderly, who are both feeble and healthy but may require assistive services, for free or at an amount according to their income.

The elderly also enjoy free transportation on the subways and buses.

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