Elders in South Korea stay young by choosing to never retire
Updated 10:42, 18-Apr-2019
By Yu Jing
With his eyes glued to the screen, Kim Won-kyu zoomed in on an image carefully on the computer. He checked every detail in the image, typed a few words and went on to view the next one.
It is hard to imagine that Kim is already near his 80s. At the age of 79, he has been working at a tech company based in Seoul for more than three years. The company he works for, EverYoung, employs more than 100 people from 55 to over 80-year-old. Looking around the modern office, one sees many silver-haired staring at the computer screen intently.
Since 2017, more people aged over 60 are at work than those in their 20s in South Korea. Retired at the age of 60, many found their senior years without work dull and financially unsustainable. With young people in the society mired in unemployment and the state pension system underdeveloped, a generation of elderly people are left to fend for themselves. 
A demographic time bomb
From the ruins of the Korean War to the thirteenth largest economy, South Korea achieved the transformation in one generation's time. Yet its economic miracle brought one unexpected byproduct – a demographic time bomb.
Inside Kim Won-kyu's office /CGTN Photo

Inside Kim Won-kyu's office /CGTN Photo

A report by Korea Statistical Office shows that the number of people aged 65 and above in the country has accounted for 14.2 percent of the total population in 2017, reaching the level of an aged society. By 2026, that figure is expected to skyrocket to 20 percent, making the country a super-aged society.
Though aging is a problem plagued by countries all over East Asia, the speed at which its population ages is the fastest in South Korea, said Chen Chengcheng, lecturer at Beijing Information Science and Technology University. South Korea hits the threshold of an aged society in 17 years, whereas for Japan, it took 24 years.
"Compared to other countries, South Korea faces greater challenges in building a welfare state," said Chen Chengcheng in an interview with CGTN Digital. "Since the country transforms at such a rapid speed, it is very hard to build up the public infrastructure that can adapt to that speed of transformation." 
With the nation's birth rate showing no signs of improving, one solution to a declining working force is to encourage workplace participation from retired seniors. In 2018, 31.5 percent of people aged over 65 are working in South Korea, more than double the OECD average of 14.5 percent. 
A generation that knows only hardship
Looking at Kim Won-kyu and his colleagues, one gets the impression that they are still in their prime, with unlimited physical power and mental will dedicated to work.  
Employees at EverYoung are all over the age of 55. /CGTN Photo

Employees at EverYoung are all over the age of 55. /CGTN Photo

"Some people ask me, you are retired, why don't you stay home and just rest?... but rest for a few years is good, and resting for too long is boring," said Kim. In his company, senior employees follow the motto of lifelong working – as long as their physical condition is good, employees strive to work even at the age of 100.
Though their entire life is defined by sacrifice and struggle, their senior years are not free from fear. Almost half of the senior population in South Korea live in poverty, with significant problems of social isolation and mental health issues.
Traditionally, the responsibility to take care of the elders falls upon the adult children. But as the youth unemployment rate hovers above eight percent, and with the nations' runaway economic success eroding traditional Confucius value of filial piety, the traditional model of living under the same roof to care for elders has become unviable.
One reason that young people are reluctant to take up the responsibility, said Sooyeon Jo from Seoul, is a generational clash in values.
"Elders used to work so as to pass on wealth to their children, but young people work because they want to enjoy their life." She said she would oftentimes be chastened by her mom for buying a 2,000-won (1.7 U.S. dollars) coffee, "my parents think I would never save anything if I spend money like this."
Elderly ladies at their seafood stall in Jungang Market on February 15, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. /VCG Photo 

Elderly ladies at their seafood stall in Jungang Market on February 15, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. /VCG Photo 

The state pension, on the other hand, is barely enough to cover seniors' daily expenses. The country first launched the state pension system in 1988 but paying into pension only became compulsory until the late 1990s.
But payoffs from the state pension do not cover every one. Many small corporations do not mandate payment from employees to the pension fund, said Chen Chengcheng, thus their employees cannot access welfare benefits from the state pension system.  
In search of solutions to the ageing crisis 
In order to accommodate the large group of elders, South Korea introduced a long-term care insurance scheme in 2008. It provides largely service benefits, with cash benefits provided only in exceptional cases.
"It is a life saver," said Nayoung Mathiesen, an entrepreneur born and raised in South Korea who currently runs a curriculum research and development company in senior care sector, in an interview with CGTN Digital.  
Her mom, who suffered from mini-strokes and showed strange symptoms, was approved under the long-term care insurance scheme for visits from professional caregivers, three hours each day for five days a week. Since her family used to have only one person acting as caregiver, the service provided from the professional caregiver was of immense help to the family, Nayoung said.
Kim Won-kyu on his way back home after he finishes work. /CGTN Photo

Kim Won-kyu on his way back home after he finishes work. /CGTN Photo

Companies are also responding to the changing demographics. The company that Kim Won-kyu works for now has a policy of employing only seniors above the age of 55. Part of its goal is to reverse public perception that seniors, once they get beyond the age of retirement, are no longer productive members of society.
"This is a social enterprise that supports our ageing society," said Kim Won-kyu.