I REMEMBER living in an apartment where Mr. Kim, a guard in charge of my lobby, would greet me every morning before going to school. The way he would smile as he pulled his hands out the window to wave completely coincided with my image of an exemplary security guard; generous, caring, and always on the lookout.
Mr. Kim’s presence was something I always took for granted, until one morning while heading off to school, I noticed how awfully silent the lobby was. I looked to where Mr. Kim would normally be, but in his place was a new guard, someone much younger than him. I was shocked to find out Mr. Kim was dismissed solely because of his age; he seemed fine to me. However, when I recently came across an article concerning the forced retirement of 20 apartment security guards in Busan due to their age, I was immediately reminded of Mr. Kim. Their reason for dismissal was not something related to their behaviors or work capabilities—it was none other than their age. Despite being a senior citizen, Mr. Kim was capable of fulfilling his responsibilities as a security guard. He was always on the lookout, doing daily patrols, and meticulously organizing delivery packages for the residents. Upon reading the article, a question struck me: Were the guards even given a chance to keep their jobs or were they simply fired due to their age?
The problem at hand
The retirement age in South Korea used to be fixed at 55, but the exacerbating trend of ageing population called for the need of an extension of retirement age to sustain the size and competitiveness of the country’s workforce. Based on Trading Economics which provides accumulated data of various economic indexes and government-based outputs from certified resources, South Korea’s official retirement age was shifted up to 60 years-old from 2017. Trading Economics forecasts a further rise in retirement age, speculating the designated age to ultimately reach 65 years-old by 2023. However, while the legal retirement age has been adjusted to cater to the needs of the ageing population, elder workers are still being forced out of their jobs even before reaching the designated age. Just like Mr. Kim’s dismissal, pre-mature retirement has become a widely shared concern among workers who have to involuntarily leave the workforce under the title of “honorary” retirement.
The aforementioned trend of early retirement is the result of the social stereotype against the older generation, with many having negative views towards the elderlies’ overall work productivity. Such stereotype was something I also had in the past. I remember walking into a fast food restaurant where I had to order over the counter, where an elderly female was working by herself. For no particular reason, I became nervous when it was my turn to place an order as my mind was filled with concerns of her not knowing how to use the Point of Sale (POS) machine. However, such perceptions should be viewed as a stigma based on misconceptions towards the older generation. We naturally choose to believe that with age, individuals lose their overall work competitiveness as their productivity decreases over time.
Productivity in older workers
While there is indeed a negative correlation between the response time in learning new tasks and age, this alone is insufficient to conclude that there is less worth in older workers as compared to the younger members of the workforce. Modern studies have begun to prove alternative results that reaffirm the work capabilities among the elderly. Based on the COGITO study researched by Florian Schmiedek and his team, they were able to find the link between productivity and age through experiments conducted among a range of young participants aged from 20 to 31-years-old and old participants aged 65 to 80-years-old. Upon conducting a range of tests from memory to intellectual reflexes in a span of 100 days to measure an individuals’ efficiency and performance, the study found that older workers displayed a relatively more stable performance than the younger workers. Such results dispute the possible stereotypes that have put older workers under a negative light while at the same time, shattering the misconception that youth workers are the only ones that can catch up to the developing industries.
While shifting our perception towards the elderlies and their work competence should be the first step towards building an elderly-friendly workforce, there is also a dire need for practical solutions that offer the older generation a starting point and opportunity to keep up with the current, fast-paced workforce. Such needs led government agencies to create foundations that aid the members of the ageing population to adapt to the present cultural-industrial trends through education and job trainings across various fields of professions.
One of the responses taken by the government is the Seoul50Plus Foundation, founded in 2016. This foundation aims to provide programs and counseling sessions for elderly workers who face retirement or those who have already retired, to better prepare them for prolonged employment opportunities. “Now the 50-plus generation is different from ‘senior citizens.’ It is also different from the notion of ‘elderlies,’” stated Mayor Park Won-soon in the Seoul50Plus Festival in 2017. Mayor Park further explained that “in broader sight, members of the current 50-plus generation were the figures behind the miracle on the Han River*. Those who have experience in working, those who know how to do many tasks—they should be the central focus of employment.” Examples of several programs organized by the Seoul50Plus Foundation include introductory Chinese classes and coding trainings where participants can acquire various skills that open doors to jobs of many fields.
In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Park Jun, a representative of the Seoul50Plus Foundation, stated that the majority of the elderly workers are facing retirement approximately at the age of 53, seven years earlier than the legal retirement age. With the Seoul50Plus Foundation offering extensive guidance for the re-introduction of the elderlies to the workforce, Park further elaborated that an average elderly who underwent their trainings managed to secure re-employment within an average span of 10 months. Being at a state of infancy, the services and programs vary by campuses and centers, but in the long run, the Seoul50Plus Foundation aims to provide sufficient resources and care for those who are aged 50 and above to continue on with their work and personal lives.
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As we progress towards ageing society, we have to ensure that our existing perceptions as well as employment system evolve to meet the change in the age of the workforce. Before we force the elderly workers out of their jobs, we should question the assumption we hold towards them and their level of productivity at work in the first place. It may not seem like a problem now, but when we become 50-years-old, when we begin to worry about our retirement, nobody will be there to give us a second chance—all because of our age.
*The Miracle on the Han River: A terminology coined in the 1960s used to refer to the period of rapid economic advancement of South Korea