Over the past few decades, South Korea has experienced a sharply reduced birth rate and substantially increased longevity, resulting in a rapidly ageing society. While in 2000, 7.2 percent of the population was aged over 65, in 2017 that figure had nearly doubled to 14.02 percent. By 2026, people aged 65 and over are projected to make up 20.8 percent of the population. Currently the 50-plus population comprises 11.5 million people, representing 22.4 percent of the entire population of South Korea. In Seoul alone, this age group accounts for 2.19 million people.
This demographic change poses a number of challenges to South Korean society. As the working-age population decreases, the fiscal burden on healthcare, social welfare and pensions is growing steadily. Despite a 2013 reform which lifted the minimum normal retirement age to 60 years, it is common practice in South Korean companies to set a mandatory age of retirement well below the age of 60, often as low as 55. Consequently, the average age of actual retirement stands at 53.
In this changing demographic context, existing retirement schemes and benefits are insufficient to enable the large population born in the immediate postwar period to enjoy the same living standards after retirement as they are used to, and this poses a significant risk of poverty in old age. At the same time, this group is healthier than elderly people of previous generations, presenting entirely new challenges. As a 2018 OECD report puts it: “Retirees may live up to 50 years following retirement: what should they do with the second half of their lives?” Hence, the challenge for the South Korean government is to enable this 50-plus generation to remain active and engaged in society and community life.
The Seoul Metropolitan Government (SMG) has spearheaded efforts to address this challenge through the 50+ initiative. Between 2013 and 2016, the SMG – headed by Mayor Park Won-Soon – launched several programmes supporting elderly welfare and education. These programmes paved the ground for 50+, which was launched in 2016.
Seoul 50+ is based on an understanding that older people should be active in society and aims to support them in creating new life models for themselves. The initiative’s main objectives are:
- Improving the life quality of the older generation
- Producing a shift in perception among older people towards active citizenship
- Enhancing social participation and sharing in society.
To achieve these objectives, 50+ focuses on three key realms: Learning and Exploration, Jobs and Social Engagement, and Culture and Infrastructure, which it pursues through a comprehensive 50+ infrastructure. This infrastructure includes the Seoul50Plus Foundation, and several 50+ campuses and centres, which are being built in collaboration with organisations from both the not-for-profit and private sectors. Acting as coordinating body, the Seoul50Plus Foundation has signed memoranda of understanding with more than 30 organisations to develop a variety of programmes in partnership with the SMG.
While the centres reflect specific local features and the needs of different city districts, campuses are bigger one-stop shops that offer tailor-made services, including counselling, education, new job models, and promoting intergenerational exchange. Of 19 planned 50+ centres, four are currently in operation. Three of the six 50+ campuses that are planned to open by 2020 are already up and running.
This infrastructure provides support and cultural spaces for the 50-plus generation to interact with their peers, drive changes, and generate needs-based services for one other. Through these offers, the initiative aims to connect the group’s broader interests and social aspirations to job opportunities and new types of employment in the form of an “encore career” – understood as work opportunities for people in later life to benefit society as a whole, for instance through volunteering.
This implies continued work opportunities for the 50-plus group across a number of projects, not just “belonging” to a single employer. This approach also enables the 50-plus demographic to build new social connections and find new ways to serve their communities. It allows them to enjoy this period of their lives, while also continuing to earn an income, acquire new personal meaning, and have a social impact. The Seoul 50+ policy specifically promotes new employment models in the public and private sectors through paid volunteer jobs (“Boram jobs”) and 50+ startup venture competitions, incubation, and “Encore” placement programmes.
The public impact
While it is too early to assess the initiative’s full public impact, as it was only launched in 2016 and is still ongoing, a first assessment indicates a positive public impact. The design of 50+ was based on carefully collected evidence, involving strong stakeholder engagement and political support from the SMG. First numbers released by the initiative are also impressive: as of August 2017, the 50+ campuses had provided more than 303 courses with more than 15,000 participants, and 600 people have participated in 13 different “Boram Jobs” placements. In addition, it has facilitated the creation of 112 50+ communities (interest- or location-based groups organised by older individuals).
While these numbers are not large compared to the size of the overall target group – the SMG aims eventually to target 30 percent of Seoul’s population  – they are significant considering the early stage of the programme. Moreover, the initiative is already scaling. Other local municipalities are benchmarking 50+ campuses and centres, and the national government has announced a cross-ministry plan to establish new social infrastructure for the third act of life.
Despite this positive outlook, some challenges remain. The 2018 report from the OCED has found these challenges to be twofold. Firstly, 50+ depends on of national ministries’ ability to cooperate effectively across fragmented legislation and institutional boundaries. The report states that: “In general, it is difficult to fit a new policy into existing silos. Whether it concerns employment, lifelong learning or welfare, effort is needed to distinguish a new policy as something different, and to ensure coordination with existing policies in order to create synergies. Paradigm shifts take time.” Secondly, it has been observed that more needs to be done to reach out to the less well-off members of this age group. This is also confirmed by a 2018 report from the Seoul Institute, ‘The 50-Plus Generation’, which says that: “A challenge encountered by the 50+ movement was that it was initially seen only as an option for over-fifties with ‘means’... this remains to be addressed in order to prevent these citizens from falling into poverty”.
Written by Mirjam Büdenbender
This case study is part of a series of international policies that focus on easing the transition to retirement and later life. The case studies and the accompanying report were produced for the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).
Public Confidence Good
There is limited evidence concerning the public support for 50+ at this early stage. However, relatively high rates of activity among the elderly population between 2016 and today – 15,000 participants in education courses, 600 in 13 different “Boram Jobs” placements, and 112 50+ communities – indicate a good level of public confidence in the initiative.
While according to the 2018 OECD report, “ageism is rife in Korean society”. it appears that the initiative and its employment programmes attract considerable support from the private sector. A startup company based in Seoul, for instance, was recently characterised as hiring only people aged over 55 years, as a response to the 50+ initiative. Discussing the advantages of elderly workers, the company’s manager Kim Seong-Kyu suggested that: “They are full of passion. The time that they have, and their interest in this work, are primarily why they come to work.”
Older people themselves have also shown support for the initiative. A survey conducted by the SMG of people aged between 50 and 64 living in Seoul found that 53.1 percent of men and 31.6 percent of women interviewed said they were willing to continue working in the future after reaching their official retirement age. As for cultural activities, 55.6 percent of those surveyed replied “Yes” when asked if they would use facilities dedicated for use of the 50+ generation.
Stakeholder Engagement Strong
Evidence suggests that there was strong stakeholder engagement in designing and setting up 50+. The SMG has made significant efforts to include different stakeholders –from citizens to civil society organisations –in these reforms.
Before launching 50+, the SMG conducted a needs assessment of 1,000 residents aged 50 and above. This was followed by a series of consultation processes with stakeholders to clarify roles and responsibilities among existing welfare entities. To set up the Seoul50Plus Foundation, the SMG also hosted numerous discussion and consultation sessions to listen to the voices of experts and of “ordinary citizens” who represented the 50+ generation. Overall, this consultation process included five expert meetings, 12 discussion sessions between companies, not-for-profit institutions and local districts, two conferences and public hearings (of 1,600 participants); and 30 expert opinion sessions. For example, Dr Donghee Han, a gerontologist, professor, and South Korean representative of the Active Ageing Consortium of Asia Pacific (ACAP), was one of the experts invited to provide input.
During the consultation process, different stakeholders expressed conflicting views concerning the 50+ programmes and how they could change and improve existing policies. The SMG made a significant effort to give space to all these voices and consider them in designing the initiative. As a result, discussions and negotiations took two full years before the Seoul50Plus Foundation was finally set up in June 2016.
Political Commitment Good
Initially, political commitment for the 50+ initiative was mixed. On the one hand, the Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-Soon – who was elected as an independent candidate in 2011 – and the SMG were strongly committed to the reform. Indeed, Park Won-Soon’s dedication to addressing the challenges posed by an ageing society preceded his move into politics. Before his election, he was executive director of the independent Hope Institute, where he successfully launched the “Happy Senior” project, which was the first programme in South Korea to offer job training courses for the 50-plus generation.
In contrast, South Korea’s central government opposed Park Won-Soon’s policies until presidential elections in 2017 led to a transfer of power. Between 2008 and 2017, South Korea’s central government was formed by the conservative Grand National Party (today the Liberty Korea Party), which opposed the policies of Park Won-Soon – who was supported by the Democratic Party. This conflict impeded the design and implementation of the 50+ initiative. Indeed, in its 2018 report the Seoul Institute found that the conflict between the SMG and Park Won-Soon on the one hand and the central government on the other was a key reason why the negotiations over the creation of the Seoul50Plus Foundation took two years.
A change in South Korea’s central government in 2017, when the Democratic Party replaced the conservative Liberty Korea Party in power, has resolved this conflict between central and metropolitan-level administrations and paved the way for strong political support for 50+. In his 2018 New Year Message, Park Won-Soon confirmed this change of emphasis. “Until the inauguration of the new administration in May 2017, the policies of Seoul continued to be suppressed by the central government for the reason that they were proposed by a mayor from the opposing political party. The SMG could not dream of attempting co-governance with the central government, because of sharp differences in philosophies and values. Its policy proposals were always rejected by the central government… The new central government of Korea has joined the SMG’s effort to improve the quality of its citizens’ lives, which began six years ago. Seoul’s policies have now become the new central government’s policies.”
Clear Objectives Fair
The 50+ initiative identified three overarching objectives (see the Initiative above). The formulation of these objectives was based on careful studies the SMG had undertaken in the years preceding the initiative’s launch in 2016.
The initiative seeks to address these goals through three priority domains, which can themselves be divided into sub-domains, namely:
- Learning and Exploration
- Life redesign education
- Systematic and comprehensive counselling
- Work and Participation
- Socially contributing jobs
- Business startups, job creation, and technical education
- Culture and Infrastructure.
While the objectives are clearly stated, they have not been explicitly defined. For instance, no evidence was found to specify what exactly constitutes an “improved quality of life”, or “sharing in society”. This somewhat diminishes the clarity of the programme’s stated objectives and consequently the extent to which they can be measured over time.
The 50+ initiative is based on substantial evidence that was collected by Seoul’s city administration in the form of previous reform efforts, intensive research into the situation and needs of the elderly in Seoul, and the expertise and experience of other countries.
Before the 2016 initiative, Mayor Park Won-Soon had launched several reform programmes supporting elderly welfare and education, which served as the foundation – in terms of evidence and experience – of the subsequent 50+ policy. During his first term in office, he launched the Seoul Senior Centre to provide systematic support for the “baby boomer” generation through training and education initiatives. However, the Centre had limited success and was criticised for lack of efficiency.
When he was re-elected in 2015, Park Won-Soon “chose to take daring measures to empower the policies, rather than to downsize or change them”. As part of these changes, he redefined the baby boomers as the 50-plus generation, and upgraded all relevant support systems. He also founded the Seoul50Plus Foundation, which was to be dedicated to operating the campuses. To set up the Foundation, the SMG developed step-by-step plans for research and investigation, and hosted numerous discussion and hearing sessions to listen to the voices of experts and the 50-plus generation themselves.
Before announcing its “Comprehensive Plan for 50+ Assistance” in 2015 and launching the Seoul 50+ initiative in 2016, the SMG spent more than two years of preparation and pilot projects. In 2015, the city conducted a needs assessment of the 50-plus generation. The study found that the three main concerns of the age group were feelings of insecurity, lack of work, and having nowhere to go.
The SMG has also drawn on evidence and experience from abroad. For example, the Seoul50Plus Foundation has translated The Encore Career Handbook, produced by the US-based organisation Encore.org, into Korean. In 2016, the SMG hosted an international conference on senior citizens in society and improving their lives after retirement. It examined successful efforts in the US, the UK, Japan and Germany, and discussed examples of how other governments and NGOs went about engaging those aged 50 and older to cope with rapid population ageing and its effects.
The feasibility of 50+ was supported by appropriate legislation at the metropolitan level and by the determined personal commitment of the Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, who ensured that the initiative had adequate funding. This view is supported by Betsy Werley, director of network expansion at Encore.org, who – after attending 50+’s first anniversary conference in 2017 – asserted that: “the Seoul 50+ effort stands out for its vision, talented leadership and impressive facilities, a product of funding and support by Seoul mayor Park Won-Soon”.
In 2011, the SMG enacted ordinance No. 5119, On the Realization of an Age Friendly City. The stated purpose of the ordinance is “to provide for basic matters necessary to efficiently promote the welfare policies for the aged of the SMG in accordance with the Welfare of the Aged Act, the Framework Act on Low Birth Rate in an Ageing Society, and other statutes related to the aged, contributing to the realisation of an age-friendly city and the enhancement of the welfare of the aged”. This ordinance has been regularly updated and amended, most recently in January 2018, reflecting the SMG’s commitment to 50+.
The 50+ initiative has also received generous funding. In 2017, the SMG spent KRW135 billion (approximately USD125 million) to create some 13,000 jobs for young people, early retirees in their 50s-60s, and elderly people. In its 2018 budget, the SMG allocated a record KRW2.0883 trillion of expenditure (around USD2 billion) to old age policies, making up the second biggest social expenditure after welfare spending for low-income citizens (KRW2.3 trillion).
As discussed above, the feasibility of the initiative was initially weakened by conflicts between the conservative central government and the independent Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-Soon. In particular, negotiations about the creation of the Seoul50Plus Foundation were slowed down by central government opposition. However, since Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party was elected president of South Korea in 2017, these conflicts have been resolved, enabling smooth cooperation between the central and municipal governments in advancing 50+.
Because the initiative is being rolled out beyond Seoul, the ability of national ministries to cooperate effectively – even under a supportive central government – presents a potential challenge to 50+. As Betsy Werley argues, the main challenges to the current feasibility of the initiative are posed by structural and cultural forces such as ageism, mandatory retirement, and a lack of awareness about the value of experienced talent.
The 50+ initiative involves actors from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors. While there are certain management structures in place, the initiative lacks overall clarity concerning the division of labour between the different institutions involved.
Policy and administrative processes are designed and decided on by the SMG. The Seoul50Plus Foundation is an intermediary, organising the partnership between the city administration on the one hand and private and civic society organisations on the other. This partnership is important, because the city administration alone does not have the resources and capacities to provide all the services envisioned by the initiative. The Foundation has therefore signed memoranda of understanding with more than 30 organisations to develop a variety of programmes in partnership with them. The Seoul50Plus Foundation itself is headed by Kyunghee Rhee, the CEO, who supervises the Encore Career Service Division. The executive director oversees the Policy Development Division, the Communication and External Affairs Division, and the Planning and Management Division.
According to the Seoul Institute, more clarity is needed about the division of labour between the different institutions involved in the initiative. It says that “it is imperative to clarify the roles to be performed by the Foundation, the Campus, and the 50+ Centres to local districts so as to prevent any redundancy or omission of programmes”.
Similar issues are evident with regard to the scaling of the initiative to the national level. While the national government announced a cross-ministry plan to establish social infrastructure for the nationwide rollout of 50+, a 2018 OECD report warned that it is difficult to fit the policy into pre-existing structures. It suggests that an “effort is needed to distinguish a new policy as something different, and to ensure coordination with existing policies in order to create synergies... The initiative therefore needs space to evolve to ensure a ‘business-as-usual’ mindset does not take over.” It holds, therefore, that success will depend on the ability of national ministries to operate across fragmented interventions in an effective manner.
Because the 50+ initiative is still ongoing, no conclusive assessment of its measurement efforts and capabilities can be made. However, the experience of the first two years show some efforts to capture and measure the progress of the initiative as well as feeding the collated data back into the programme itself. This view is supported by an OECD team that met with a selection of 50+ peer-to-peer counsellors, community leaders, and programme participants in autumn 2017. On the basis of these meetings, the OECD team found that “as the programme evolves and develops, with input from the 50+ generation itself, feedback from users is integrated into the approach”.
Efforts are also being made to capture the performance of 50+ through regular conferences and workshops. Under the theme of “50+Possibility through Learning and Sharing”, the second Seoul 50+ International Forum 2017 was co-organised by the SMG, the Seoul50Plus Foundation, and the Encore.org network. More than 440 participants from government, local authorities, research institutes, the private sector, and civil society participated in this forum, reporting on their own experience of 50+ as well as learning from other programmes and countries.
One crucial obstacle to capturing the performance of 50+ lies in the insufficient definition of its three main objectives (see The Initiative above). While the success of the initiative can be estimated, for example by using employment rates or disposable income as a proxy for improved quality of life, there is a certain vagueness about the nature of “quality of life” and “changed public opinion”, as they were not defined at the outset. Moreover, there is little information on whether the SMG plans to measure the performance of the initiative systematically and regularly in the future and, if so, what data and methodology will be used.
Alignment has been a priority in the implementation of 50+, and workshops and training modules have been used to enhance alignment between frontline workers and administrators. For example, as part of the Seoul 50+ International Forum 2017, the Encore.org network held an “Encore Careers” programme, which provided training to members of the public administration and private organisations linked to 50+, discussing various issues including entrepreneurship opportunities and “‘fun’ activities for the 50-plus generation”. Similarly, the Seoul 50+ first anniversary celebration combined global and local perspectives, providing representatives from 40 local governments in South Korea with training and resources to work on their own versions of the initiative.
Both South Korea’s central government and the SMG have taken major steps to enhance their alignment with those aged 50-plus as active participants and codesigners of the initiative. Changing the elderly’s self-image, and providing them with the confidence to self-identify as active citizens, is an important element in this regard. For example, to offer role models for 50-plus adults in South Korea, the Ministry of Science, Technology and Information funded a documentary about older adults in the US using their skills in paid and unpaid social sector work, including interviews with the Encore Fellowships team, Experience Corps, and ReServe. In addition, the SMG is working to equip this age group with the concrete tools and knowledge to engage in and contribute to 50+. The Seoul50Plus Foundation, for instance, is building a 50+ support framework to ensure that volunteers and participants in 50+ have access to the know-how and support in order to design and deliver the services they want and need.