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March 4, 2013 1:12 AM   Subscribe

In Korea, Changes in Society and Family Dynamics Drive Rise in Elderly Suicides - "The epidemic is the counterpoint to the nation's runaway economic success, which has worn away at the Confucian social contract that formed the bedrock of Korean culture for centuries."
That contract 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.
How Capitalism Creates The Welfare State
[T]he forces that free market capitalism unleashes are precisely the forces that undermine traditional forms of community and family that once served as a traditional safety net... in South Korea, the shift has been so sudden and so incomplete that you see just how powerfully anti-family capitalism can be...

The result is a generation of the elderly committing suicide at historic rates: from 1,161 in 2000 to 4,378 in 2010. The Korean government requires the elderly to ask their families for resources if they can pay for retirement funding – forcing parents to beg children to pay for their living alone – a fate they never anticipated and that violates their sense of dignity. Hence the suicides...

We see the consequences far beyond the suicides of elderly Koreans. And in my bleaker moments, I wonder whether humankind will come to see this great capitalist leap forward as a huge error in human history – the moment we undid ourselves and our very environment, reaching untold material wealth as well as building societies in which loneliness, dislocation, displacement and radical insecurity cannot but increase."
Dying Alone Becomes New Normal as Japan Spurns Confucius - "Itoko Uchida, 82, was counting on the nephew she raised to support her in old age. He refused, forcing her to pay for a sponsor to join the 420,000-long queue of Japanese waiting for a nursing home bed."
posted by kliuless (23 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
There's a Korean expression for a "sandwich generation" currently in their 50's or so who a) will get nothing from their own children and b) are expected to take care of their own parents.

So yeah, it's a horrible situation.
posted by bardic at 1:20 AM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


The Korean government requires the elderly to ask their families for resources if they can pay for retirement funding – forcing parents to beg children to pay for their living alone – a fate they never anticipated and that violates their sense of dignity. Hence the suicides...

I don't follow this. The article says that the Confucian tradition was that the family would take care of their elderly. It could not have been undignified for the geezers to go hat in hand to junior in Confucian days when the country was dirt poor. Why is this same tradition undignified now that junior has a little extra coin?
posted by three blind mice at 1:28 AM on March 4, 2013


Why is it humiliating to have to ask for a wedding reception invitation from a friend, rather than being invited in the first place? As long as they say yes, you get to go either way, right?
posted by No-sword at 1:36 AM on March 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


But surely this phenomenon - the elderly living alone and 'abandoned' - isn't something specific to Asia. This is the logical consequence of the now-pretty-much-complete shift in most countries to structuring society around the nuclear family, something that I would like to think will be recognized (in a better future) as a massive social mistake.
posted by woodblock100 at 1:48 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Why is this same tradition undignified now that junior has a little extra coin?
People with a good grasp of the Korean society will give a better answer than mine, but based on what I've witnessed in another Confucian Asian country, one core issue is the changing demographics. When families were large and life expectancy was short, the still-living old people did not have to beg: they had multiple (grand)sons, (grand)daughters, nephews and nieces etc. who could be expected to take care of them and the extended family could share the burden. That's no longer the case: South Korea is in the top 20 for life expectancy and in the bottom 5 for fertility rate (1.21). The changes have been more gradual in the West, where societies have adapted and created safety nets (social security, pensions, retirement homes) which are imperfect but do exist.
posted by elgilito at 1:58 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is the logical consequence of the now-pretty-much-complete shift in most countries to structuring society around the nuclear family, something that I would like to think will be recognized (in a better future) as a massive social mistake.

Also a great deal of this is perhaps the result of the emancipation of Korean women from having a dozen children and never working outside the home which some would call a massive social mistake and others progress.
posted by three blind mice at 2:15 AM on March 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think what is not generally comprehended by outsiders is how profoundly at odds Western capitalism is against traditional East Asian norms and values. These suicides put a harsh light on the problems of modernization. Who will solve this? Who will claim responsibility? As far as humanity has made it, the world is still a barbaric place.
posted by polymodus at 3:39 AM on March 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


> ...the nuclear family, something that I would like to think will be recognized (in a better future) as a massive social mistake.

I have mixed feelings about that, because my parents could not have easily held white-collar jobs without being able to move away from their hometowns and families.

I think there are some real advantages they could have had in raising me and my siblings if there had been uncles and aunts around too, but I think their own quality of life would have been lower and opportunities for personal fulfillment would have been fewer.

The upheaval in Korea comes in part from this change in society happening at an accellerated rate compared to the U.S.; the old ways were stricter and more hidebound, which makes the change so much more stark.
posted by ardgedee at 3:53 AM on March 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


> Also a great deal of this is perhaps the result of the emancipation of Korean women from having a dozen children and never working outside the home which some would call a massive social mistake and others progress.

South Korea appears to me to be very much a man's world in the professional sphere. The status of women in the workplace have improved but women still do not have the same opportunities in the workplace men do. Smaller family sizes have at least as much (if not more) to do with the necessities of urban living (less space) and the cost and effort of living in a hypercompetitive society in which any child needs to be kept constantly busy with schooling, tutoring, and extracurricular activities to keep them from falling behind their peers in school, university, and their first jobs.
posted by ardgedee at 3:59 AM on March 4, 2013


It seems to me that this is the change that many anti-modern "fundamentalist" movements are resisting. In the middle east, the people who hate the west really hate this social structure. In the U.S., the "family values" crowd which pines for the patriarchy of the olden days is really mourning the disappearance of the support structures that extended families once provided. They may not put it in quite those terms, but this is the big social change that best explains the backlash, to me. Modern capitalism undoes the "clan" and the "tribe" and the multigenerational household by requiring labor mobility, and women's liberation does lead to smaller families, and fewer caregivers.

In the U.S., though, it's a kind of funny paradox that the people who most oppose the social consequences of capitalism, also are the greatest supporters of the economic policies that make the old kind of families hard to support. They seem to believe that since government support structures are new, they must be a part if the problem, rather than an attempt to mitigate it...
posted by OnceUponATime at 4:01 AM on March 4, 2013 [16 favorites]


This isn't just an Asian thing. Multigenerational family homes are the norm in most traditional societies, as far as I know. Watch the bbc documentary on New Guinea tribesman visiting England and you'll see them recoiling at the concept of nursing homes. When I was in Nicaragua, I was hanging around with a local girl, and must have met 10 members of her family (a grandmother, cousin, sister and aunt, etc) in a single stroll around a city block. In places without a lot of monetary income and no social safety net, that's pretty much the only way to survive.
posted by empath at 4:15 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


Smaller family sizes have at least as much (if not more) to do with the necessities of urban living [...]

Is there evidence to support this? It seems like common sense, but on the other hand I can't think why urban living would inherently be opposed to large families, other than through historical accident.
posted by tychotesla at 5:04 AM on March 4, 2013


Very interesting. We should look for ways to live as multigenerational families to address both caring for the elderly and caring for young children.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:18 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


It seems like common sense, but on the other hand I can't think why urban living would inherently be opposed to large families, other than through historical accident.

I don't think urban living is a major contributor. It's the automobile, education, economic freedom/mobility, opportunities for women in the work force and to choose their spouses. If you have a poorly educated population, with no disposable income and a patriarchal society, it's a lot easier to keep women at home taking care of a large household, and the children home to work in the family business. There are advantages to living this way, but you have to sacrifice personal freedom to family obligations to accomplish it.
posted by empath at 5:31 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


multigenerational families

Wouldn't have to be an actual 'family' unit, I think. Why can't we create some kind of multigenerational community, in which child-care and elder-care were functions shared with other people living nearby. Instead though, we all close the front doors and lock ourselves into our little castles ...
posted by woodblock100 at 6:09 AM on March 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


In the U.S., the "family values" crowd which pines for the patriarchy of the olden days is really mourning the disappearance of the support structures that extended families once provided.

I'd be more inclined to believe this if there wasn't an extremely long history of derogatory humour about that extended family centred around the tortured head of the family having to deal with it. I think what is missed is the power and not so much the other stuff like responsibility.
posted by srboisvert at 6:47 AM on March 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


...something that I would like to think will be recognized (in a better future) as a massive social mistake.

My family recognizes it as a massive social mistake right now, and we're doing something about it. I don't know how we'd raise our kids without grandma here with us. We're working on getting her status so she can come along to Canada with us, where my Mom will also join the family.

And my kids will have it made very clear to them through word and deed that when I die they get all my stuff, and that they take care of their mother.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:33 AM on March 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


The Korean government requires the elderly to ask their families for resources if they can pay for retirement funding – forcing parents to beg children to pay for their living alone – a fate they never anticipated and that violates their sense of dignity.

I'm surprised the GOP hasn't proposed this as a cost-cutting option yet. Maybe we shouldn't give them any ideas.

We see the consequences far beyond the suicides of elderly Koreans. And in my bleaker moments, I wonder whether humankind will come to see this great capitalist leap forward as a huge error in human history – the moment we undid ourselves and our very environment, reaching untold material wealth as well as building societies in which loneliness, dislocation, displacement and radical insecurity cannot but increase."

Indeed. As a modern woman (and I can't imagine myself, me specifically, as anything else), I know that I've missed out on much of the upside of community and family-oriented life. But within those structures, there would always have been a terrible battle of wills, to which I would have been expected to submit, as there was when I lived at home with my mom. To me self-determination and autonomy are always paramount but deep down I know there is a price to pay for that. And I'm someone who readily acceded to the opportunities of modernism: the elderly Asians in the linked articles are having modernism forced upon them.

If anyone hasn't seen Leo McCarey's great Make Way For Tomorrow, I recommend it. It's a heartbreaking look at the fate of a pre-New Deal elderly couple in the Land of the Free, relying on the kindness of their adult children and spouses to provide them with room and board. Doesn't end well but it's a good reminder of what American life looked like for many older folks before Social Security and Medicare were enacted.
posted by Currer Belfry at 9:16 AM on March 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


I love the dream of a close-knit supportive family that can be relied on, but my family is kind of shit. It's always seemed to me that a lot of this self independence could be a reaction from people who have sort of shit families desperately cobbling together a world where they don't have to rely on them. Or being told they have to, since you couldn't rely on them either way.

I don't know how to create a world where shit families aren't mandatory punishments just for being born into them, with incentives to support and stay within families that are actually functional. Is forcing an adult to care for their abusive elderly parents a solution? Is punishing an adult for not caring for their kindly parents?

The previous system worked for some people at the expensive of others, just like this one does.
posted by Dynex at 11:17 AM on March 4, 2013 [8 favorites]


Right, that's exactly it. You're essentially forcing children to be slaves to their parents and grand parents, which gets completely unsustainable when older people are living longer and younger people are having fewer children. They need to stay home, which means earning less, having fewer opportunities to learn and grow, invest, save for their own futures, etc. At some point the costs of supporting the elderly have to be borne by society as a whole, and have to be paid for by people saving money right now for their own retirements and health insurance. There's going to be a transition period where people expected to be cared for by their children, and are instead going to be cared for by the state, but it's something that needs to happen eventually, and the sooner it's done, the better.

Anyone who thinks that the previous way of doing things was some kind of natural utopia that capitalist ruiners are ripping apart out of greed probably hasn't had to throw their dreams away so they can do what their family demands from them.
posted by empath at 12:36 PM on March 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


I remember walking late at night on one of the record cold Winter days in downtown Portland when I passed an older homeless man sitting on the steps of a church with a thin blanket wrapped around him. He was Asian. My very first thought (besides the obvious pang of heartbreak) was "Where is your family? Your children?!" That shocking sight was inconceivable in the society and culture I grew up in with respect to the Confucian ideals of filial piety and reverence for elders.

I cannot imagine leaving my elderly parents to suffer alone through old age. My siblings and I are likely the last generation of kids who accept that we'll be taking care of our parents and accordingly plan our lives around that eventuality. We don't view it as a burden or some canker in our lives. Perhaps it's the only part of my culture that was retained when I immigrated. Korea is definitely not the same country as when I left.
posted by loquat at 5:03 PM on March 4, 2013


My siblings and I are likely the last generation of kids who accept that we'll be taking care of our parents and accordingly plan our lives around that eventuality.

Never say never. This nuclear family thing has been a tiny little blip in our long history. I doubt that our current social model in the West is going to be a durable feature of human society.
posted by Meatbomb at 5:43 PM on March 4, 2013


South Korea's New Leader Faces Economic Challenge
South Korea's new president, Park Geun-hye, took the oath of office [2013/02/25] and used her inauguration speech to address one of the challenges to her rule: the perception that government and the nation's businesses are stifling many South Koreans' chances for wealth and success...

Ms. Park concentrated on the systemic problems facing South Korea's economy... They included inadequate welfare for South Korea's elderly, enormous expenses for child rearing and education that have sent the nation's birthrate plunging and an entrenched belief that people can be successful with degrees from a narrow list of colleges.

"There is no place for an individual's dreams, talents or hopes in a society where everything is determined by one's academic background and list of credentials," Ms. Park said. "We will transform our society from one that stresses academic credentials to one that is merit-based."

Ms. Park also addressed perceptions that government regulations show favoritism to the large conglomerates that dominate the economy and said she would end "the misguided habits of the past which have frustrated small business owners."
South Korea's new president
South Koreans today are more concerned with the distribution of wealth than they are with headline GDP figures. The popular perception is of a successful country that is stricken with economic inequality, excessive power in the hands of the chaebol conglomerates, and a lack of decent jobs for young graduates. Ms Park won power having promised to relieve these ills, while expanding the welfare state...

She brought the main conservative party to the political centre, with her talk of "economic democratisation". She achieved this while retaining her core support—the older voters who remember her father with fondness... This remains a country where gender equality is a distant dream. South Korea has the highest median male-female pay gap in the OECD.
also btw...
  • Shame - "The burden of citizenship is to share in, and hold people to account for, the injustices experienced by our neighbors. Alice was fucking ripped off to the tune of any semblance of economic and financial security she might ever have had at the very moment that her husband was dying of cancer. This is beyond awful. This is mortal sin in any religion worth the name. This is pure evil."
  • Shocked, Shocked, Over Hospital Bills - "It should be possible to compensate hospital executives well without treating middle-class uninsured people like lemons to be squeezed fiscally."
  • An average ER visit costs more than an average month's rent - "Prices in our health-care system are absurd. They range dramatically depending on where you seek treatment and what type of health insurance coverage you have."
  • Don't let doctors' incomes derail healthcare-cost reform - "Medicare should cover everybody — which would massively increase Medicare costs while massively decreasing overall healthcare costs — or else that rates should be set by the government, even if the bills are paid privately."
  • Sen. Rockefeller on the future of Obamacare - "To me, the idea is that people have a right to know. The history of health care is not being able to know what you don't know, thanks to the insurance companies. It's truly amazing what they've done from rescissions to fighting everything in sight."
  • The model is Switzerland - "At the highest level of abstraction, the idea of the Affordable Care Act is that over time Americans should be transitioned out of a blend of employer-provided insurance and lack of insurance and into a system of regulated, subsidized, individual plans."
If anyone hasn't seen Leo McCarey's great Make Way For Tomorrow, I recommend it.

thanks! i've been meaning to check out amour [cf. _the long price quartet_ by daniel abraham, which i'm becoming convinced is a modern masterpiece (viz. "binding the andat" ;)] like i love ozu for his vision of a society across generations from a familial perspective...
posted by kliuless at 4:32 PM on March 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


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