Jobs for Korean Boomers

"Korean boomers clearly understand the current situation. They do not want to retire and wish to continue working beyond the general retirement age. The words that best describe them are “Neveretiree,” “amortality” (living agelessly), and “dystopic” (not optimistic about future)"


Henry Kim
Chief Operating Officer, Senior Partners Inc.

“You think the office is like a battlefield? Don’t ever quit until they force you, because it’s much worse outside.”

The line above relates a common problem that Korean baby boomers face. It comes from a popular soap opera Misaeng, which showed the joys and sorrows of an average office worker. The story was originally written as a web-based serial cartoon, but as it became more and more popular, it was eventually made into a soap opera in 2014. (It was so successful that its sequel will be produced in the near future.) To further expound on the quote above, it means that maintaining your position at work is as dangerous as surviving a war, but starting something on your own, outside the office, often leads to failure.

That’s right. The boomers in Korea are in a desperately dangerous situation where they must choose between a “battlefield” or “hell.”

The time has come when the boomers will exit the workforce all at once. The eldest of the boomers (born in 1955) retired in 2010 at the regular retirement age of 55. Since the 1960s, Korean seniors have been very grateful to be retiring at the age of 55, as active longevity was the key factor in deciding the retirement age. Corporations thought that retaining workers while they were healthy saved medical costs and improved productivity; however, even as individuals’ active longevity extended, the retirement age stayed the same. This discrepancy has been going on for 50 years. The government passed a new law that, depending on the size of the workplace, the retirement age would be extended in stages from 55 years old to 60 years old, starting 2016. Yet a study conducted by a private enterprise shows that the actual retirement age is at 52 years, which is well below the official retirement age. The workers are practically being forced out, and this is why it is said that working until the retirement age is at least as difficult as surviving a war. Furthermore, the boomers can’t take the deep humiliation from being forced to step down from the monumental work that led the miraculous economic growth of the nation decades ago.Since the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953, Korea generally has been about eight years behind the path that the global world took. Those who were born between the years 1955 and 1963 are called baby boomers (7.2 million).

If you can choose to leave, why wouldn’t you escape from the “battlefield”? Because what awaits is “hell.”

If an employee does not find another job upon retiring, starting a new business is another way to make a living. Sadly, this alternative is also associated with bad images like “hell.” According to the data collected by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), among the start-ups that are 42 months or less old, 36.5 percent were created to make the least living and 51.1 percent were to increase the income level (“opportunity pursuit”). While such “opportunity pursuit” cases may seem to account for many more start-ups, those “making a living” cases are significantly higher in Korea than in developed countries. The average proportion of the “make a living” start-ups of the 26 innovation-driven economies selected by GEM was 18.2 percent..

Confronted with a lack of good-quality jobs and a social safety net, boomers who are pushed out of their workplace have no choice but to start low value-added service businesses. There won’t be any problem if boomers can sustain these start-ups, but according to the Small and Medium Business Administration, the survival rate of the lodging/restaurant business (the most popular type of start-up) after 5 years is only 17.7 percent. No wonder people call it “hell” outside the “battlefield.”

“Dear Captain of Titanic, steamships heading west are reporting icebergs, blocks of ice, and an ice field at 42 degrees north latitude and 49 to 51 degrees west longitude,” wrote the captain of the Caronia to the Titanic in 1912. Although the Titanic disregarded such serious warning about icebergs, this urgent situation was not completely unpredictable. The stewards said, “Not even God himself could sink this ship” and assured everyone that the Titanic would never sink, but it did.

Korea can project highly reliable future forecasts through the “demographical map,” and this map boasts a warning sign that says, “Look out for the year 2017 and be prepared!” A big change is about to take place in stages. First, economically active people will start to decrease; this group has been increasing ever since the beginning of official demographic statistics. Second, people who are 65 years old and older will outnumber those who are 14 years and younger for the first time. Third, Korea will enter an “aged society” status, which means that people who are 65 and older will account for more than 14 percent of the total population.

The whole world seems to be in the midst of a similar situation with regard to aging, but this unavoidable situation appears to be happening more rapidly in Korea. What’s notable is that even though aging began relatively late in Korea, it is making the fastest progress in the world. If the Olympics were to have aging as sport, Korea would undoubtedly win gold medals until 2035. Thus, Korea is expected to experience a considerable change in the future. Taking a cue from how the Titanic ignored Caronia’s telegram, Korea should comprehensibly prepare for the foreseeable future.

One of the main reasons for the ongoing recession of the world economy is the decrease in what is called “effective demand.” When the core labor force leaves the workplace, a sharp decline in productivity and a weakening of consumers’ purchasing power take place simultaneously. And a decrease in job opportunities—due to economic downturn—leads to an inevitable struggle between the older generation who are still at the workplace and the younger generation who are trying to enter the labor market.

Korean boomers clearly understand the current situation. They do not want to retire and wish to continue working beyond the general retirement age. The words that best describe them are “Neveretiree,” “amortality” (living agelessly), and “dystopic” (not optimistic about future). The philosophy they have about “career” is also concrete. To boomers, career means “existence” (I am alive), “value” (I am of use), “life” (I live by the time/hour), and “survival” (what I do helps make a living).

Is there any solution to resolve this unfortunate condition, where Korean boomers cannot work even though they want to? It is true that this condition is way too broad and complicated to be handled with just a few individuals’ wisdom or insight. But we should neither give up nor simply try to avoid it. With limited knowledge and experience, and based on personal experience in the senior industry since 2007, I would like to humbly suggest the following recommendations.

First, decent jobs for Neveretirees should be provided. When private corporations cooperate with the government, solutions will be found. But if the boomer problems are left to be solved by politics alone, then there is a risk that impractical performance measures will be forced on the situation and no problems will be solved. Thus, it is necessary to have the boomers get involved with developing senior-related policies in the first place.

Second, education for “life modeling” is seriously needed. While the boomers have been thoroughly trained to contribute to others (workplace, public, etc.), they never had a chance to really think about their own futures. Systematic and sustainable education—which gives more meaning to life, opportunities to find suitable jobs that fit the purpose of life, and chances for self-improvement—are needed most. Although it is important to recognize successful stories of few retirees, it is also essential to have more general and objective evaluation and recovering time for all. It may make more sense to establish a solid foundation for the boomers to pave their own way rather than recklessly expanding personalized services to meet various individual needs.

Third, globally widespread “age management” should be correctly implemented. Confronted with aging, older workers should be able to pass down their know-how to younger generations; dream and prepare for a hopeful retired life; and add more value to the workplace by more deep-rooted loyalty to the employers. Through this model, new jobs that embrace the boomers’ knowledge and experience will be created. And it will spur cooperation of different generations instead of competition.

However, this does not mean that all economic agents sit idly and act passively. Some are making very active problem-solving efforts and consequently getting remarkable results. One key example is the establishment of “Encore School Instructors” and “Golden Year Planners” who are trained by Senior Partners Inc., a senior training specialized company.

While brainstorming programs for preliminary retirees, Senior Partners Inc. came to agree that such programs would make more sense to be taught by retired seniors with sufficient knowledge and experience. So, we began to train senior instructors through the “Encore School Instructor” training program. These senior instructors already had enough experience, but they needed more sophisticated information and training programs to deliver their lifelong accumulated know-how more effectively to help preliminary retirees redesign the postretirement life. The total number of the 128 senior instructors consists of “Encore School Instructors,” who guide through life remodeling; “Restart Instructors,” who advise in more depth on adapting to a new lifestyle after returning to farm/home; “Life Journal Instructors,” who help write and publish autobiographies; and “Employment Course Instructors”, who not only help write resumes and cover letters but also hold mock interviews. These senior instructors gave 1,525 hours of lecture last year, and 1,797 hours as of September this year.

The “Golden Year Planner” is another example of how the Korean government is creating brand-new jobs to increase job opportunities for seniors. These planners are experts who provide information and consulting services to seniors on emotion, health, finance, career planning, and death to help seniors map out their golden years. Senior Partners Inc., a government-prequalified instructor, gave 492 hours of training to train 29 planners, who are playing pivotal roles in pioneering new jobs.

While such results are inspiring and heading in the right direction, we cannot deny that these opportunities are given only to a limited amount of people, and they need to be spread more publicly.

The boomers in Korea achieved a miracle like no others have, and they are faced with an unprecedented challenge that no one has ever experienced. But these are people who unbelievably created a new era of prosperity after a devastating colonial time and a burning fire of the war, so I strongly believe that the boomers will solidly overcome this present challenge. And because we are a part of this global world, I dearly hope that everyone will cheer for the Korean boomers. And I wish that wise solutions will be shared among one another so that we all may grow and prosper together.

About the author

Henry Kim is the Chief Operating Officer of Senior Partners Inc., an expert in life-long learning, working to enhance the quality of life of the Korean seniors. He graduated from Yonsei University in 1985, majoring in economics, and started his career in major securities firms (Daewoo and Kyobo) as a marketing manager, an online business manager, and a marketing strategies director. He joined Senior Partners in 2007, and has been actively making the difference in seniors' lives.


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