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In South Korea, Retirement Can Be Elusive

By Su-Hyun Lee, NY Times

September 12, 2009


South Korea

The job fairs are part of a government effort to help older South Koreans find employment.


At the Coex Convention Center in this city’s southern district, a site best known for sleek business exhibitions, Kang Dal-soo, 76, joined the rush to check out the “silver job fair” offering 2,000 private sector and 4,700 public sector jobs for retirees.

“It seems I need to learn text messaging in order to deliver flowers,” Mr. Kang said anxiously after an interview at a courier company’s booth. He wanted to work — even though flower delivery was not his ideal job — but he was worried about having to master a new technology and wondered if he would be able to keep the job even if he got it.

Silver job fairs, established to find jobs for people 60 and older, have mushroomed across South Korea in the past year as part of a government effort to assist a rapidly growing population of older Koreans adrift in a changing society.

Until recently, the notion of older people having to look for jobs did not cross the minds of most South Koreans. The traditions of Confucianism hold that adult children should take primary responsibility for the care of their aging parents, who would enjoy respect and high status as sovereigns of the household.

But this practice is crumbling under the weight of longer life spans and changes in family structure, and many Koreans are entering the later stages of their lives unprepared. A government survey released in July found that fewer than 27 percent of Koreans 60 and older had made any provision for their post-retirement years beyond investing in their children’s education.
Now, many of these older Koreans are dismayed to find themselves dependent on their children, often in cramped urban settings, with very different priorities. These days, if adult children are willing to take in elderly parents, they often make it clear that they expect those parents to do household chores and look after the grandchildren, prospects that can make the parents think twice about moving in.

According to the National Statistics Office, 48.3 percent of South Koreans 65 and older were living with their children in 2007, compared with 72.4 percent in 1990.

The government is scrambling now to fill the gap in support, and older job seekers are responding. This year employers have received an average of three applications for every job offered at the fairs, compared with 1.5 applications in previous years.

A government pension system, financed in part by employee contributions, was introduced in 1988 for retirees over 60. But only 28 percent of the working population is covered. Many Koreans of that age, particularly those who worked as farmers, never held jobs that qualified for such pensions. For those who did, many are not receiving the monthly allowance, which averages less than $193, because they chose to take their pension in a lump sum at retirement.

In 2004, the government ordered the National Pension Service to try to find jobs for older workers. By 2006, the project was made permanent, overseen by a new independent body called the Korea Labor Force Development Institute for the Aged. Job placements rose from about 30,000 in 2004 to more than 83,000 in 2006 and 196,000 in the first half of this year.
Despite that progress, there still are not enough openings for older job seekers. So local governments have been creating publicly financed “silver jobs,” like chaperons for children returning home from late-night cram schools, gas station attendants, opinion survey interviewers and wedding officiators.

Then they urged potential private employers to set up booths at silver job fairs. The government offers subsidies to private companies that hire older people and pays half the roughly $163 in monthly wages for each person employed by the public sector.

At the Seoul silver jobs fair, desperation was in the air as 30,000 or so people crowded the booths exploring openings for work most had never expected they would need.

Han Teresa, a job placement counselor who had helped organize the fair, described a man in his early 70s who had flopped down on a chair in front of her. “He said, ‘I thought I’d die a few years after I retired,’ ” Ms. Han said. “ ‘I never believed I’d be alive for another 10 years or so.’”

Lee Eun-seok, 77, who had applied for a job as a garbage sorter, said, “I hope my daughter-in-law asks us to live with them soon.” Her eldest son and his wife had been citing the lack of a spare bedroom for the delay, she said.
But Mrs. Lee’s husband, Han Chul-soo, 78, said he feared that none of their four sons would ever invite them to move in. And so he joined his wife at the fair doing what was once the unthinkable: looking for a job.

Nam Su-hyun, 30, had come to the job fair to submit résumés for his 63-year-old father, who had objected that he would lose face if he had to do so himself.

“I want my father to work rather than just moping at home,” Mr. Nam said.

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