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Thursday, June 2, 2016

Aged-Out Korean Style

For an outsider, living here in the 1970s, it was hard to miss the pedestal they were placed upon. The elderly in Korea had earned their stripes; surviving the often brutal and dehumanizing Japanese occupation. Then came the unforgiving horror of the Korean War. If you made it to sixty you earned the privileges that society gladly bestowed on you: the respectful bows; the honorific language; for men, the long wispy beards; and for women, the convivial smoking in groups. People routinely fought to give up their seats in public buses for society's grandparents. But that was then...

…Having received the highest student evaluation scores, the three expat professors were invited to the Director's office. In a brief exchange, they received certificates of accomplishment,  a handshake from the Director and a few perfunctory words of congratulation. "I hope to see you three back here again next year," he said, "Continue with your great teaching." For one of the three professors, those comments felt a bit insensitive and incongruous. Having just earned the highest evaluation scores from students, he was being aged-out, forcibly retired. He wouldn't be teaching at his university next year. He was turning sixty-five.

In today's Korea, forced retirement based on age is systemic. As a result, just 3.7% of regular employees at medium and large companies are 55 or older. This, in a country where the life expectancy is pushing 82, one of the highest in the world.

Older Koreans on a public bus in 1974. Being "aged-out" is as common as kimchi and rice.

Being aged-out here is as common as kimchi and rice. A former colleague in the English Department, very popular with students, was recently let go because he had turned sixty-five. "It was awful," he said. "My popularity ratings were over 95% for nine years. I did extra work for the university, the school, and the department, all for 
no compensation. And, I have to leave?" he asked rhetorically.

Few folks who are aged-out take it personally. Most expats know the cultural expectations when they come to Korea and quickly learn how the guidelines are interpreted and implemented at their places of employment, usually universities. Korean natives are treated no differently, so it's not a matter of being treated inconsistently; age discrimination is institutionalized. To many though, it's more than frustrating or infuriating--it's hurting the economy and the society. In the light of day, it simply doesn't make much sense. The cultural context is unambiguous; Koreans are sent into retirement at age 50, 55, 60 or 65. In fact, new figures put the average retirement age at about 53. Younger workers are ushered into companies where they earn less, are willing to take orders, and are allegedly more flexible and more productive. But are most of these operating assumptions true?

Certainly young, fresh recruits are paid less. In South Korean firms, pay and position rise with seniority. But nearly all employers operate from the belief that productivity decreases with seniority. Over 57% of them cite “low adaptability to change” as a reason for not keeping older workers, according to the Korea Labor Institute, a government-funded think-tank. 

According to Thomas Klaassen of York University in Toronto, 
"Internationally, there is little evidence to suggest that older workers are less productive than younger ones,  Their underperformance in South Korea, if real, may be a self-fulfilling prophecy," he argues. "It could be the prospect of premature retirement that discourages older Koreans from investing in skills."


Two older gentlemen ride the subway.
Questioning their value in today's Korea?


Korean society is rapidly aging and its birthrate is in steep decline. In the late 1950s, Korean families averaged 5 children. Today, families average about 1 child. Additionally, and this should come as good news, as of 2013, the life expectancy for Koreans reached 81.9 years. A man or woman retiring at 53 still offers their country almost thirty years of productive life. But how Korea puts those still productive years to use, to fuel its once vibrant economy, is yet another question. 

Wall painting in Busan, Korea's 2nd largest city
There is much talk that new laws and guidelines will be implemented to change Korea's current "early retirement" practices. Time will tell if and when those promises result in real, systemic change. In the meantime, kicked off their pedestal, older Koreans, the very people whose blood, sweat and tears built their modern country, are sent off into the setting sun, neglected, forgotten and unrewarded.







6 comments:

  1. Their loss, our gain. But, always some loss with change. Sad. Time for a new project! john

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  2. Their loss, our gain. But, always some loss with change. Sad. Time for a new project! john

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