Korea's elderly turn to suicide as family bonds fray

Carolyn Moynihan
21 February 2013
Reproduced with Permission

South Korea has a reputation for economic dynamism and top-notch women golfers, but there is at least one thing it is not doing very well these days: looking after its elderly citizens. Asian family values built on Confucianism are breaking down under the pressures of a highly competitive society focussed on economic performance and personal success.

The Confucian "social contract," according to a New York Times article, "was built on the premise that parents would do almost anything to care for their children -- in recent times depleting their life savings to pay for a good education -- and then would end their lives in their children's care. No social security system was needed. Nursing homes were rare."

But as South Korea's hard-charging younger generations joined an exodus from farms to cities in recent decades, or simply found themselves working harder in the hypercompetitive environment that helped drive the nation's economic miracle, their parents were often left behind. Many elderly people now live out their final years poor, in rural areas with the melancholy feel of ghost towns.

The country was late recognising the need for social security to compensate for these changes. It introduced a pension system in 1988 but it is meagre, and many of the oldest South Koreans are not covered because they were past working age when the system was created. A government report in 2011 said that only 4 out of every 10 people over 65 had a public or private pension or retirement savings. Moreover, the law denies welfare to people whose children are deemed capable of supporting them.

Recently a 78-year-old widow killed herself by drinking poison in front of her city hall, in protest at having her welfare payments stopped. The authorities said they had no obligation to support her because her son-in-law had found work. Suicides among people 65 and older quadrupled between 2000 and 2010, from 1161 to 4378. A novel called "Please Look After Mom" has become one of the country's the biggest selling books in years.

Suicides have surged among other adults and teenagers too -- a trend that is usually blamed on the stress of living in a highly competitive society, rather than the changes in family structure that are driving older people to despair.

And yet changes within the family must affect children too. Thanks to the over-emphasis on getting ahead economically the South Korean birth rate has collapsed, and, at an average of 1.2 children per woman ,is lower currently even than Japan's, which has ticked up slightly in recent years. Parents desperate for their child to succeed in the education system and get a good job tell themselves that they cannot afford to give him or her a brother or sister. Rather than a robust community in its own right, the home becomes a cell producing a worker bee, and how does that affect the mental health of young people?

At the same time the scarcity of children makes the problem of how to care for the aged even more serious. South Korea according to one report is up there with Japan in the rapidly-ageing stakes. The ratio of workers to elderly people is expected to fall from 4:5 to 1:2 by 2050, according to the OECD.

It sounds like national leaders in that country need to step back and ask themselves what the economy is actually for. If it is not able to make real family life possible, it's a failure, no matter what the country's GDP.