By Eunji Yoo
Photos: [Left] Elders line up in front of a South Korean church for food, [Right] Elders eat on the sidewalk upon receiving their meals (via NPR)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA is a glowing metropolis known for its dazzling pop culture, prestigious research universities, and frighteningly fast Internet speed. It holds a reputation as one of the most tech savvy cities in the world and receives hundreds of thousands of visitors every year. But behind the fortress of luxury makeup stores and high rise condos, hidden in the shadows of the wealthy Gangnam district of Seoul, sits a small patch of low income apartments, where a severely underrepresented portion of South Korea’s population quietly resides: the elderly.
The elderly, anyone over the age of 65, make up over 14% of the South Korean population, according to The Hankyoreh. With the advent of the brutal Korean War in the 1950’s, the Baby Boomer generation carried the daunting task of recuperating following the conflict. To say that they succeeded in their task would be an understatement. A former rural community, Seoul is now one of the most technologically advanced and fastest growing cities in the world. The Baby Boomers are entirely responsible for building the foundation that the country of South Korea currently sits on. The Asian technology and culture hub that we know to be Seoul would not be present without the Baby Boomer generation. To see that these people have grown old being forgotten by the very society they constructed is heartbreaking.
When one thinks of growing old, most people envision a relaxing retirement filled with enjoyable vacations, bubbly grandkids, and a sense of contentment. However, over half of the elderly in South Korea live in stagnant poverty, dreadful loneliness, and desperate despair for an activity to fill their days. There is not much an 80 year old living in poverty with little means of transportation can do for fun.
Much of the adult population invests lifelong savings into furthering their children’s academic experience, whether that be through paying for expensive private tutors or top tier learning academies. By the time the child grows up and begins university, lower income parents are left with just a little more than barely enough to get by. The immense focus placed on education contributes to the increasing amount of South Koreans, particularly those over the age of 60, living in poverty.
The traditional idea that children should watch over their elderly parents seems to have fallen on deaf ears over the past two decades. Taking numerous sick days or appearing undedicated to your work is looked down upon by several top tier businesses in Korea. Once a person begins work in a competitive sector, he or she quickly begins to prioritize business over family life. Consequently, children are trapped between family obligations, such as taking over elderly parents, and employment obligations, typically opting for the latter, while the aging parents begin feeling more and more like a burden to their children.
The amount of fiscal dependency aging Korean parents have on their children has decreased over the years, relying more on local community efforts in order to try and loosen their burden on their working kids. Just outside of Seoul, hundreds of older Korean citizens line up in front of local churches every week for a small but hearty meal, a measly but valuable 50 cent coin, and a bit of overdue but much needed company. Some stand in line for hours waiting.
The reliance on nongovernmental efforts is also partially due to the lack of government assistance for the elderly. While the South Korean government does provide pension for retired people, it only amounts to $200 a month, barely enough to get by. Furthermore, only around 35% of the elderly population receive this pension, according to the National Pension Research Institute Survey. The government should be obligated to provide a universal social security system for civilians who are no longer capable of supporting themselves, but the South Korean government has met criticism for failing to fulfill the needs of the elderly. It is obvious that the generation of people who should be most content with their lives are spiraling into growing despair, yet there is little being done to change their predicament.
The elderly population in Seoul is projected to grow tremendously, with over half of all Koreans estimated to be over the age of 52 by 2040, a statistic provided by the Korea Times. The institution of universal social security should be made a top priority for the South Korean government. The creation of well-funded support groups at public civic centers can also provide the elderly with an outlet for physical and emotional assistance. The treatment of elders should be continuously emphasized to local and national government leaders.
It is not right that the elderly live in the shadows of a modernized city they helped create.