South Korea has rapidly transformed itself into a major player on the international stage in a matter of decades. It’s a nation of rapid growth, innovation and ever-increasing life expectancy, studied in business schools around the world as a model of rapid upskilling, and technological innovation. Currently the 4th largest economy in Asia, it remains one of the fastest growing developed countries. However, this incredible growth has hidden major wealth inequality. Seniors are increasingly alienated, barely able to meet basic needs in one of the wealthiest nations in the Indo-Pacific.
Nearly half of seniors in South Korea live in relative poverty, the highest percentage in OECD countries. Inability to keep up with the technological changes of the workforce and the high-skilled labour required has made many redundant. With low public spending and insufficient social security, some are forced into selling used paper and boxes, earning around $5 a day. Even though the private sector is no longer supporting the elderly as much as they once did, government assistance is slow. Pension reform is likely to result in decades of disparity. When President Moon Jae-In entered office in 2017, he ran on a platform of closing the wealth gap by increasing the minimum wage and retirement benefits. In the past three years, however, income inequality has increased, particularly amongst the elderly. Cho Hyun-yun, a researcher at Dongguk University stated it was essential that the government “resolv[e] elderly poverty.”
Seniors have traditionally relied on private support by younger family members to care for them. However, weak adherence to Confucian traditions and high youth unemployment makes it significantly harder for children to support their parents. The impacts on the elderly are harsh, affecting basic needs including health, housing and food. As fresh food and vegetables are expensive to buy, and cook, the nutrition many receive is insufficient. Seniors are frequently pushed to the outskirts of towns in order to afford housing. Those who remain in cities often live in shared premises, occupying tiny 70 square feet rooms with no windows and share facilities such as bathrooms, and kitchens.
While there is a high percentage of the elderly living in relative poverty, affordable healthcare has kept people healthy. There is universal healthcare and the state sponsors health treatments for the poor. Yet physical conditions are not the only needs which are not met. Constantly seeing proclamations that the nation is becoming a wealthier, technologically advanced state alienates those who are unaccustomed to a world of Bluetooth devices and smart phones. Fixing poverty amongst the elderly requires wider reforms to be carried out, in conjunction with increasing the minimum wage and pension support. In addition to granting seniors increased incomes, facilities must be put in place to create support systems and social events to combat alienation. Centres teaching technology use, facilitating meet-ups and providing warm meals would go a long way in supporting an ageing population.