The woman’s death is part of one of South Korea’s grimmest statistics: the number of people 65 and older committing suicide, which has nearly quadrupled in recent years, making the country’s rate of such deaths among the highest in the developed world. 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.
If you have read my book, you know that these two paragraphs could well have described the United States in the 1930s, when older people were being left behind in rural areas as their children went to the cities for better jobs. Rising poverty among the elderly was indeed among the motivations for the US Social Security system. Furthermore, for many decades the suicide rate among the elderly in the US was higher than for all other ages except teenagers--only recently have the rates dropped below the 25-64 age group.
The problem, of course, is not simply industrialization and urbanization but also the increased life expectancy that goes along with that. In 1950 in South Korea, for example, life expectancy at birth was only 50 and at that level only 45 percent of people born were likely to reach age 65. With higher fertility then than now the likelihood that any single younger person would ever have to care for his or her parent was quite low. Now, however, life expectancy in South Korea is 84 years and at this level, 95 percent of all people can expect still to be alive at age 65. Combined with smaller family size (which of course has allowed South Korea to become rich), the odds of a younger person having an older parent to care for have skyrocketed. It isn't that society is falling apart socially--it's really that society is no longer falling apart demographically, and that requires new ways of thinking about the older population.