No country for old men

Photo by Jonathan Burrello
Photo by Jonathan Burrello

No country for old men

by: Chance Dorland | .
Groove Korea ( | .
published: December 11, 2014

The elderly sacrificed for their children and their country, but who’s helping them now?

Korea may be the land of Samsung and K-pop, but it’s also a land of poverty, especially for many members of the older generations. The country ranked 50th for elderly well-being on HelpAge International’s Global AgeWatch Index of 96 countries, next after China and Kyrgyzstan. While it may not be surprising that Korea fell behind first-ranked country Norway — or even the United States (8), the U.K. (11) and Australia (13) — its Asian neighbors Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Vietnam also outranked Korea, which has the 15th largest economy in the world.  According to the OECD’s 2012 Economic Survey, nearly half of Koreans aged 65 or older live below the poverty line. Meanwhile, the suicide rate for older Koreans has nearly quadrupled in recent years, making Korea’s elderly suicide rate one of the highest in the developed world. Yet recent analysis on the East Asian Forum website presents some startling statistics: Current figures from the Finance Ministry show that only 0.26 percent of this year’s budget was allocated to aid and services for the elderly. Old people receive a maximum pension of $83 per month and the pension age of 60 is gradually being increased to 65. Groove Korea spoke to Koreans in Seoul to find out why so many elderly people are poor and what should be done about it.

Groove Korea: What do you think about Korea’s ranking for elderly well-being? Why do so many elderly Koreans live below the poverty line?
Female Korean-American Seoul resident, 25: Young people didn’t have to live through Korea’s economic rise, and the younger generation is kind of over (caring about) the older generation, so I think that statistic is pretty accurate. 

Male Seoul resident, 39: Elderly people don’t have a chance to work because a lot of people at large companies have to retire when they’re 45. So what can they do after? They have to make their own work, but it’s very easy to fail.

Male Cheongju resident, 27: The economy grows really fast because politicians want Korea to be a nice, rich country with advanced technology and big buildings. They don’t care about people, so they give money to companies and don’t regulate them. But old people can’t get any welfare.

Female Jeju Island resident, 22: There are more elderly people in Korea than before, so young people can’t afford to pay for programs for the elderly.

Kim Jae-sin, male Seoul resident from Gaeseong, North Korea, 72: We spent our working years in the time when Korea was going through its big economic development, so we’ve focused only on the growth of our nation and consequently haven’t prepared for life after retirement.  

Kim Na Jung-ja, Seoul resident, 74: Old people are not really in a difficult situation. It’s just that they choose not to work. They can work, but they’re too embarrassed. … I’m 74, but I can work as much as I like. There are so many jobs I can do that I don’t have enough time for them all. … I think we should all be responsible for ourselves, and make our own living, because we really can.

Female Mokpo resident, 69: I don’t think Korea’s ranking should be that low. We have one of the 10 biggest economies. It doesn’t feel right to me. I’ve seen old people in poverty who live in tiny rooms on TV a few times, and I’ve heard there are old people who are really in financial distress, but I haven’t seen any in real life around me, so it doesn’t really feel real.

Does the government need to do more to combat poverty and help Korea’s elderly population?
Female Korean-American Seoul resident, 25: What kind of culture tells their kids to respect their elders, but then the government doesn’t have the proper programs to help the elderly?

Male Seoul resident, 39: The government should do more to support elderly people, but I don’t think it’s good at managing money. That’s the main problem. 

Male Cheongju resident, 27: It should collect more taxes from young people and the rich. Actually, the rich and poor pay really similar taxes. It’s unfair.  

Female Jeju Island resident, 22: It should help more. That’s why we have government. But raising taxes is not good because young people don’t agree with that, and giving things away for free just delays the problem.  

Kim Jae-sin, male Seoul resident from Gaeseong, North Korea, 72: I guess pensions are better than nothing, but we don’t really need that. What we need is jobs. 

Female Mokpo resident, 69: Many people who don’t need financial aid receive pensions. I think the government should think more about this — stop giving money to people who don’t need it and give more help to people who really need it to survive.

Groove Korea website

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