Sun, May 13, 2018 - Page 5 News List

No country for old people: S Koreans work into old age amid low pensions


In theory, Park Jae-yeol should have retired 11 years ago. However, despite its advanced economy South Korean state pensions are meager, and the 71-year-old is obliged to continue working, delivering packages to high-rise apartments.

He pushed a cartload of brown boxes into an elevator at a block of flats in Seoul, his aging eyes strained by constant squinting at tiny address labels.

“Money is the biggest reason” he is still working, Park told reporters.

He is one of millions of elderly South Koreans pushed into labor well past the official retirement age of 60. Social safety nets in the rapidly aging country are weak, despite South Korea ranking in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries.

More than 45 percent of elderly South Koreans live in relative poverty — less than half of the median household income — by far the highest proportion in the OECD, where the average is 12.5 percent.

Park is one of millions whose efforts powered the “Miracle on the Han,” the country’s transformation from a war-ravaged ruin in the 1950s to the world’s 11th-largest economy.

A high-school graduate from Busan, he was employed in air-conditioning maintenance, earning enough to raise three children and buy an apartment in Seoul.

He eventually formed his own air-conditioning servicing company, but like many people of his age was never able to build up a cushion of savings for his twilight years.

“Our generation was too busy trying to survive and raise children during these crazy times, unable to prepare for our post-retirement years,” Park said.

South Korea introduced a national pension scheme only in 1988 and it did not become mandatory until 1999. Payouts are dependent on the amount and duration of contributions, with a 10-year minimum.

“Many of those in their 70s and 80s missed a chance to pay into the system so [they] are left out of pension benefits” and must survive on welfare payments that are “ludicrously low,” said Hwang Nam-hui, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.

Park’s firm went bankrupt in 2012, leaving him having to rely on a national pension of about US$130 a month and an elderly subsidy about US$180 — “nowhere near enough” to live on in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

“That’s not even enough for pocket money,” he said, adding that he did not want to rely on his children.

So he signed up for a state program to help elderly people find menial jobs, and started working as a deliveryman in 2014.

He now works three days a week, taking up to 100 packages to their destinations and earning about US$500 a month.

Most of his coworkers are in their 70s, with the oldest being 78.

Park has already worked for more than five decades, but said he hoped to carry on “as long as my health allows ... maybe until I’m 80.”

South Korea’s fertility rate — the average number of babies women have in their lifetime — hit a record low of 1.05 last year, far below the replacement rate of 2.1. Over-65s are expected to make up 25 percent of the population by 2030 .

Statistics released in March showed more South Koreans in their 60s were economically active — either employed or seeking a job — than those in their 20s.

Park and his 63-year-old wife — who works as a convenience store cashier — take only one week off a year, to go to the resort island of Jeju.

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