Suicide among the elderly in Korea is disturbingly common, a New York Times article reports. In Korea, the article explains, parents tended to look to their children for security in old age, essentially in the place of a pension. As a consequence, they would pour their life savings into their children’s education. The suicides happen when the elderly parents find they have no resources left and the children have not stepped in. It is not clear whether the children actually refuse to help in most of these situations, but it is humiliating for the parents to ask in Korean culture, and many parents do not want the burden of providing support to compromise their children’s success.
The Times article attributes the despair of so many elderly to the breakdown of traditional Confucian attitudes. This makes a certain amount of sense. Confucianism involves a self-conscious embrace of tradition. It emphasizes respect for others and respect for self through the fulfillment of responsibility. Filial duty is therefore extremely important in a society guided by Confucian principles.
Citing the facts that the public pension system was only begun in 1988, that it does not cover many of the elderly, and that it provides only a meager allowance, the article appears to suggest that more pension benefits and social programs would alleviate the problem. I would of course need more information than I have available, especially about Korea, before attempting to evaluate this suggestion, but the facts do present an interesting chicken and egg problem.
Does the existence of a developed market economy and the accompanying social mobility inherently weaken the bonds of family and generate difficult conditions for the most vulnerable—the elderly, the mentally ill, the severely disabled, and some children (because weakening family structure inherently means more marital dissolution)? If so, advocates of the welfare state have an argument, whether it is decisive or no: public benefits could help alleviate these problems. On the other hand, the article mentions that Korea’s pension system was developed in 1988. So it could be the case that public benefits cause the weakening family structure. The logic in other contexts is obvious: when the government pays for school breakfast, for example, parents often no longer bother to provide breakfast for the kids.
In any event, the tragic situation of many Korean elderly raises questions about dependence on family—when it is healthy, and when it is not. I know of a diplomat who spent some years in Somalia. He observed that when a person became wealthy in that society, his relatives would typically descend on him for support. The degree of familial dependence therefore made social mobility difficult. Even in this country we can see that it is often a bad sign when adult children move in with their parents. And yet the traditional Korean pattern of intergenerational dependence, at least as described in the Times article, does not seem so parasitic. Surely any modern culture in which the vulnerable find themselves alone, whether or not they make the ultimately destructive and irrational decision, leaves something to be desired.