The Korea Herald


Baby boomers caught between tradition, future


Published : Aug. 8, 2011 - 19:04

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Communication with family members necessary to avoid problems in retired life

To mark the 58th anniversary of its establishment on Aug. 15, The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles on the looming retirement of Korean baby boomers and its socioeconomic impact on the nation. The following is the second of the eight-part series. ― Ed.

Choi became chief executive of a subcontractor to a large company in 1997, months before the country was hit by the Asian financial crisis. He was still in his early forties, ambitious, confident and, above all, good at his work.

Then the economy crashed leading the country to be bailed out by the International Monetary Fund. Like many other businessmen at that time, he struggled hard to keep afloat, but both the subcontractor and its parent company went bankrupt.

After that, he did “whatever he could do” to make a living and support his children. He started two unsuccessful venture firms with his former colleagues and worked as a part time instructor at a vocational school on the outskirts of Seoul. He still lives a tough life with little sign of improvement. To make ends meet amid soaring living costs, he works from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. He also works on Saturdays.

Choi said the reason he works hard night and day is his family: Both of his two children are college students and their huge tuition fees, among other expenses, are difficult to cover. He also looks after his parents in their 80s who live near his house. He visits them whenever he can.

“I sometimes ask myself how have I gotten into this situation. It was bad timing. No one saw the financial crisis coming. No one saw inflation going this steep,” he said. “Maybe, this is my karma.”

He is old enough to prepare for his retirement but is approximately 100 million won in debt and barely manages to save. Nevertheless, he has a strong sense of responsibility to support his family.

“I have not asked my children to suspend or give up their school education to make money. I told them to keep on studying. I didn’t want them to graduate and start their careers with debt just because they have a father who can not pay off his debt,” he said.

This is a portrait of a Korean father of the baby boom generation. Government officials and scholars define Korean baby boomers as those born between 1955 and 1963 to parents who experienced the Korean War (1950-1953). The baby boomers took a leading role in the rapid economic development of the war-torn, impoverished country in the 1970s.

Now, they are the “sandwich” generation: Between their parents who take for granted the traditional filial duty of supporting them, and their children for whom they have sacrificed much but cannot rely on in old age. Unlike their baby boomer parents, the next generation is more individualistic and independent, attaching less importance to Confucian tradition.

Baby boomers look after two generations at the same time ― their parents and children, without any promise of being supported by their offspring.

According to the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, the estimated 7.12 million Korean baby boomers on average have 4.1 siblings and 1.9 children.

Of the surveyed baby boomers, 82.3 percent reside in cities, and 70 percent are graduates from high school or higher institutes. More than 90 percent support their own or their spouses’ parents and 50.2 percent give monetary help to their adult children.

About 51.7 percent said they feel responsible for their parents’ welfare but don’t expect their children to do so for them when they are old. Of the surveyed baby boomers, 93.2 percent wanted to live on their own and only 3.3 percent expected their children to help in times of hardship.

The institute noted that 79.7 percent have a job but that 83.4 percent do not have a concrete plan for retirement except for a vague hope of landing a job.

Among the baby boomers’ troubles is that 31.4 percent are highly likely to become poor after retirement largely because of insufficient preparation.

“Those who did not plan to work again after retirement replied so, not because they are wealthy enough but because of health issues and other personal problems,” Kim Yong-ha, head of the institute, said at a seminar on baby boomers held in Seoul last month.

No matter what plans baby boomers have for their retired life, the clock is ticking. The Seoul Metropolitan Government in June forecast that about 1.5 million baby boomers will retire by 2018 as residents in the capital city, a sudden massive influx of retirees which could pose a major social welfare issue to the city.

“What sets the baby boomers apart from previous generations of retirees is that their life expectancy is longer than that for their parents and that they have fewer children. Which means that they have more time to spend with their families,” said Byun Mi-ri, a Seoul Metropolitan Government official in charge of aging society affairs.

“So, those who are not familiar with settling family problems through dialogue and communication are likely to feel much stress in their retired life.”

As possible causes of problems in retired life for baby boomers, she cited that 75.6 percent of married couples quarrel over financial issues, followed by 66.9 percent over differences in character and 61.8 percent over childrearing.

Lee Youn-il case is typical of the challenges of baby boomers. The 52-year-old former salesman retired from a small company in March because of severe backache.

“It wasn’t an early retirement. I think it was the right timing because the global economic recovery has allowed the company to be generous in severance payments and others,” he said.

He recently enrolled in a private academy which gives lectures to those who want to win real estate broker certificates. What drove him out of the house was the awkwardness he felt even in his own home.

“Though I thought much about the generation of my daughters, I didn’t really know how to communicate with them and convey my feelings to them. To me, home wasn’t the most comfortable place once I was out of job at a relatively early age,” he said. He added that his wife works at a factory but that her income is not enough for a family of four.

“When I worked, I used to dream of a relaxed, pleasant retired life. But the reality is far from that. I go to the academy to study complicated laws to secure a means to make ends meet again, and come back home to help my tired wife relax,” he said.

Experts say that it is about time society embraced the baby boomer generation, which has devoted so much to democratization, social development and economic growth from the ruins of the Korean War.

An official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare said that the ministry is working on measures to make better use of their work experience after retirement and help retirees restart social and economic activities.

“Forty-somethings in Korea mark the highest suicide rate in the age group among OECD member states. They grew up in the post-war difficult environment, overcame severe poverty and fought authoritarian regimes for democratization. They deserve fruits from the remarkable economic development to which they have made a great contribution. They deserve respect for their achievements,” he said.

By Bae Ji-sook (