My mother-in-law, who entered her 70s several years ago, has been working as an instructor for a mobile education program for the elderly at a senior center for four to five years now. As a young girl, she dreamed of becoming a teacher, but like many other older Koreans who were born and grew up during the Korean War, she was unable to complete her high school education. Feeling a sense of unfulfilled learning, she joined an education program to learn how to use a smartphone a few years after her husband’s passing and ended up becoming an instructor there. Now, she even creates simple instructional videos using apps. With some extra income coming in, she can even send mobile vouchers to her son-in-law for his birthday.
In October of last year, the central bank released a report analyzing the factors for the increase in the employment rates among the elderly. The report cited one of the reasons behind the increasing employment of individuals aged 60 and above as the decrease in financial assistance from their grown-up children, as more and more grown-up children provide less financial support for their elderly parents. But I believe that various job opportunities that did not exist before are providing income for a significant number of the elderly, thus reducing their reliance on financial support from their children. As the number of working seniors increases, the burden on the younger generation naturally decreases, becoming a new normal.
As we marked National Senior Citizens Day early this month, the Korean media published articles describing post-retirement life as somewhat miserable. Those articles were mostly based on data from Statistics Korea, which showed that the share of families whose head of the household is aged 65 and above exceeded 25 percent in 2023 to date. According to the statistics, South Korea also boasts the highest employment rate for those aged 65 and above among member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Many media outlets also lamented the elderly having to work until they die.
Is South Korea really a “hell” for seniors where they are “forced” to work? Looking at the other figures in the same statistics could change that view. Among working seniors, 37.5 percent of them said they were in good health, 15.6 percentage points higher than non-working seniors, who stood at 21.9 percent. The stress level was lower among working seniors than non-working seniors, with 34.4 percent reporting day-to-day life worries, 2 percent lower compared to stressed non-working seniors.
For the older generations, most of whom grew up in a predominantly agricultural setting, children living together with their elderly parents and keeping them from labor-intensive work was considered a filial duty. But things have changed. In the same statistics, 81.9 percent of working seniors responded that they do not want to live together with their children, and 72.9 percent among non-working seniors said they do not want to live with their children. Seniors choose to live out their remaining years free from their children after retirement nowadays. If there are suitable jobs that guarantee a decent income and allow for self-realization, it is even better.
The one million job program for seniors created during the previous administration was criticized because it was a temporary measure to boost the employment rate in response to the side effects of income-led growth policies. As the number of cash-handout jobs such as trash collection, looking out for wildfires, or walking kids to and from school grew, private organizations and senior job centers saw a reduction in the number of available jobs.
Japan, whose population started aging before Korea’s, actively supports private-sector-led, sustainable job opportunities where seniors can establish their own employment base, such as elderly-only supermarkets where all the employees are elderly.
My mother-in-law says that there is a long waitlist for her position, and many people on the waitlist have high academic backgrounds, including former teachers and professors. As the retirement of the baby boomer generation intensifies, competition for good senior jobs is expected to increase. As the elderly population inches towards the 10 million mark, more job opportunities in not only the low-income class but also the middle-class and highly educated retirees will be needed. Reviving the latent workforce amid declining birth rates and labor productivity could be a breakthrough for addressing the nation’s labor market issues.
By Lee Ji-yong and Chang Iou-chung
[ⓒ Pulse by Maeil Business Newspaper & mk.co.kr, All rights reserved]