“I’m hungry, I don’t need respect, I don’t need honor, I just want three meals a day.”
On a night of ghouls and goblins, instead of military police and a menagerie of drunken expats, a few brave souls donned the most frightening costumes in Itaewon: the ajeossi and ajumma costume. When translated, these words literally mean middle-aged man or woman who is married, but their common use by foreigners often depicts elderly Koreans. And unlike the nocturnal nightmares that roamed the streets of Itaewon that Halloween night, the ajeossi and ajumma costumes were the most frightening for one reason — their horror story is real.
While ‘golden years’ describe the graceful and leisure-seeking period after retirement in America, Korean retirement is currently typecast as futile years of isolation, abandonment, poverty, and depression. Articles on this subject are so disheartening readers outside of Korea risk concluding senior citizens live in a dystopian hell.
There was the story of the elderly woman who committed suicide in front of her city hall by drinking pesticide. She protested the withdrawal of her welfare checks by the government after her son-in-law found employment.
There was this note, will, and two funeral pictures left by the eighty-two year old man and his wife for his son-in-law. The note read, “ I don’t want to be a burden on my children.” The couple ended their lives.
There was a visit by a social worker to a Korean War veteran who lived in a condemned apartment heated by a single electric blanket. His remaining life ambition is to outlive his wife — so he can take care of her— because she suffers from dementia. He struggles to carefully budget the 300 dollars provided to him by the government and charitable organizations every month. He said the worst part of his existence is loneliness.
There were these elderly prostitutes working in public parks to avoid starvation. One exclaimed, “I’m hungry, I don’t need respect, I don’t need honor, I just want three meals a day.” Four hundred women work in Jongmyo Park alone, encouraging their male clients to share needles and inject medicine to induce erections.
There was this reporter who followed a ninety-year old halmeoni (grandma or old woman) for an entire day. She participates in a meretricious government program collecting recyclable goods for money. The reporter discovered the disabled woman, whose upper torso remained parallel to the ground when walking, spent most of day abusing her fragile body by pulling around a heavy cart. She earns eight cents per kilogram of trash collected, but she is incapable of collecting trash quickly. Unfortunately, this practice is prevalent and competitive in Seoul.
Senior Citizens vs. Poverty, Depression, and Suicide
The negative perception of elderly life in Korea is not without merit. Life in South Korea is daunting for many seniors. Poverty, depression, and suicide are serious problems that require immediate attention.
The chief problem among senior citizens is poverty. Korea ranks 67th in income security for the elderly, which qualifies as the worst in Asia. Nearly half — 45.1% of those sixty-five or older — live in relative poverty, struggling to survive on less than half of the country’s median household income. Among seniors who live by themselves, more than 76% live in poverty. In comparison, the average rate of elderly poverty among all other OECD countries is a meager 13.5%.
In a culture that prizes economic worth and contribution, poverty can lead to severe depression. Poverty not only damages self-perception, but in Korea fiscal impotence can lead to being ostracized from the community.
The impact of poverty on depression in Korea is further demonstrated by comparing suicides among age groups. The substantial increase in suicide after turning sixty is alarming.
Senior citizens account for 28.1% of all suicides in Korea, silently quadrupling the averages of all other age groups in an already suicide-laden country. Attempted suicides by the elderly are also ten times higher than the rest of the industrialized world. Many experts agree that most of the elderly endure harsh economic conditions and severe depression before taking their own lives.
What the Hell Happened?
It would appear that the generation that selflessly ushered Korea from a poverty-stricken state to an enviable world-class economy was abandoned by their government and families. Korea spends less on the elderly, a paltry 1.9% of its GDP, than all members of the OECD besides Mexico. Additionally, children no longer support their parents like they did in the past. The fall of senior citizens, nonetheless, is not a conscious decision by the Korean people, but a byproduct of a traditional culture that could not keep pace with a meteoric economic transformation.
For generations, the rural/agrarian/Confucianist culture of South Korea reinforced the idea of filial piety. Parents shouldered the enormous financial burden of supporting their children until marriage, and, in return, children supported their parents after retirement. Nonetheless, Korea’s rapid ascent to prosperity following the Korean War saw the forces of urbanization and industrialization break up the family, divide generations, and erode filial piety.
Even in 1980, child-to-parent monetary transfers accounted for 72% of the total income of elderly people. In 2003, however, transfers dropped to a mere 31%. Over the past decade, the percentage of children who think they should help support their parents shrunk from 90% to 37%. While 70% of seniors lived with their children in 1990, that number dropped below 30% in the beginning of the 21st century. Additionally, seniors became more reluctant to receive help from their children. In Korea’s modern society, filial piety is no longer a viable option for supporting the elderly.
Until recently, the government did not need a strong pension or welfare system to assist the elderly because filial piety ensured family support. When filial piety withered away, the pension and welfare systems created could easily be labeled “too little, too late.” The pension and welfare systems need more time to grow.
Even with recent improvements by the Park Geun-Hye administration, the most seniors are eligible to receive is approximately 190 dollars per month. This is a recent increase from ninety dollars a month, but only the poorest 70% qualify to receive support. This amount fails to pay rent and it only provides for a few days of food. If a child is part of a family that earns 130% of the national average, the elder remains ineligible for benefits regardless of family support.
Despite the decreasing support from children and the reluctance of seniors to burden their children, older generations continue to invest a large portion of their earnings into Korea’s ungodly financial demands for their children’s education. It is not uncommon for parents to spend upwards of one-third or one-fourth of their income for private education for their children.
This type of extravagant spending does not end when a child turns eighteen, but parents continue supporting their children until marriage. Parental support can continue well past a child’s thirtieth birthday. Educational advantages are crucial in Korea’s competitive society and parents often forsake their retirement planning to invest in their children’s expensive upbringing. The cost of education is a primary reason for low birth rates and a super aging population in Korea.
Finally, the mandatory retirement age for most employment contracts in Korea is fifty-five. Most senior citizens do not find jobs with equal pay after retirement as younger workers are viewed as more productive. This explains why many seniors can be seen throughout Seoul working entry-level positions.
Obviously, the loss of ten years of salary is detrimental for retirement. More problematic is that seniors lose another ten years of contributions to retirement funds. The last ten years of compound interest in any retirement plan are the most lucrative — they are often crucial for securing retirement. There is little doubt that mandatory retirement at fifty-five severely cripples the financial position of seniors across Korea.
According to statistics conducted by the National Statistical Office in 2011, only less than 40 percent of senior citizens who are over 65 years old answered that they have been preparing for old age so far. It implies that the rest of 60 percent mainly have to depend on little government subsidies or support from society in order to make a living.
Before attributing blame over the suffering of some senior citizens, it’s important to remember that an entire country, not just senior citizens, was impoverished and starving after the Korean War. South Koreans were so poor and hungry they often boiled and ate tree bark to survive, despite knowing the high amount of fiber would cause their anuses to rupture and bleed during excretion.
Some seniors suffer now, but an entire nation suffered a few decades ago. Often in history, rapid changes — including positive social and economic progress — leave behind potholes to be filled. No improvement is perfect, and change always indirectly hurts someone. Korea is a much better place than fifty years ago, but Korea must now fix problems caused by its own success.
Korea’s Greatest Generation?
Despite all the challenges facing the elderly in South Korea, they remain steadfast in adversary. Surrounded by Korea’s modern technological and financial achievements, they are the few remaining soldiers fighting the last remnants of the Korean War. The media focuses solely on those who are suffering, but this concentration on suicide and poverty does not paint a complete picture. If there is massive suffering, it is either overstated or most of the elderly I encountered remain resolute in their pride for Korea and their gaiety for life. I would describe the elderly as one of the most vibrant groups of Koreans I came across during my four year stay.
My point in sharing anecdotal experiences is not to invalidate the statistics of suffering seniors — they need help. But, I hope my thoughts and experiences illuminate that there are many senior citizens in Korea who are still engaged and happy. If Scott Fitzgerald were alive, he would describe them as a jaunty bunch. This group of senior citizens rarely appears in headlines, but their positive presence is unmistakable in my daily life.
These are the senior citizens that can be found on every hiking trail overtaking amateurs with bottles of soju in tow.
They are on every market corner tirelessly prepping produce or preparing meals.
They are artisans preserving or creating culture through refined craftsmanship.
They are often spotted in the wee-hours of the morning on that oddly designed fitness equipment.
Whether at dawn or late night, they are the omnipresent ingredients effortlessly creating a Brent sandwich on the subway.
They can be found enjoying each other’s company over a game of checkers by the Han River or arguing politics over a Cass at one of the numerous neighborhood chicken hoffs.
At dusk, they create the most memorable silhouettes near the open sea by casting their fishing nets over the water.
These are the senior citizens that inhabit Seoul.They run circles around the work-prone zombies and impersonal younger generations.They certainly run circles around the elderly from the States. They are productive and — to hell with all the negative press — they are hopeful.
I’ve come to appreciate the elderly of Korea as an inseparable part of this country’s beauty and charm. It is not uncommon to find photographers who remove people as distractions from their landscapes, cityscapes, or shots of cultural milieu. I believe, in Korea, these shots are not nearly as beautiful or complete without the well-earned placement of a stalwart of Korea’s past. The positivity and productivity of senior citizens transcends what appears to be overwhelming odds, and it only adds to my nostalgia and appreciation of this special generation of Koreans.
If being old in Korea is a nightmare, many of the elderly shaped their reality into a beautiful nightmare. The world should not only admire how this generation transformed Korea, but how their spirit and character refuses to go gently into that good night.
They are Korea’s true embodiment of “fighting.”
A special thanks to Nathan Chesky for his outstanding photography contribution and inspiration for writing this article. Please visit his Facebook page to view more of his beautiful portraits and landscapes of Korea. Click here — NRC Photography.
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