South Korea – redefining life in the “homo hundred” era

If you want to experience a bold, sophisticated program engaging older adults, head straight to a Seoul 50Plus campus in South Korea’s capital. In May, I met with leaders of the 50Plus program, participated in their first anniversary conference and toured the Central Campus. I’ve seen a lot of encore programs in my role as Encore Network lead; the Seoul 50Plus effort stands out for its vision, talented leadership and impressive facilities, a product of funding and support by Seoul mayor Park Won-Soon.

My visit continued 2016 Encore-Seoul 50Plus connections that were established in both cities. It also fostered a new connection in Busan, South Korea’s second-largest city, and with the Active Aging Consortium of Asia Pacific.

21st Century South Korea

In case you missed the South Korea lecture in your world history course, some background information for context. Despite its relatively small population (51million) and size (the entire country fits in the area between San Francisco and Los Angeles), South Korea is the world’s 11th largest economy, rising from post-war poverty to Asia’s wealthiest country per capita. 

Life expectancy is high (thus the “homo hundred”shorthand for longer lives) and birth rates are low, so the proportion of older adults is growing fast. Mandatory retirement ages in companies produce young “retirees” with a median age of 53. Long lives and small pensions mean that paid work is a necessity for many people. Younger people are experiencing high unemployment, adding to the intergenerational strains.

South Korea is a high-density country. Half the population lives in the province surrounding Seoul, the government and business hub, in relatively small apartments. 

In May, the country elected a new President, Moon Jae-In, whose Liberal party was the only one to articulate plans for the 50-to-65 generation. Seoul’s Mayor Park Won-Soon, the Seoul 50Plus Foundation’s champion, is a close ally of new President Moon, so encore work is high on the political agenda.

Seoul 50Plus: Mission and offerings

With a mission of “creating a new life vision for Seoul’s 50 plus generation,” the organization offers one-to-one counseling, courses, cultural activities, meeting space and an encore career program, designed to help people transition to new, paid positions. Leveraging U.S. resources, the Foundation has translated both The Encore Career Handbook into Korean. 

Those activities take place on purpose-built campuses. Two have opened–the Central Campus and the Western Campus–with several more scheduled for the next two years, distributed across Seoul’s sprawling territory. I visited the newly opened Central Campus, where beautiful facilities make a strong statement about the value of investing in experienced adults.

Seoul 50Plus Foundation logo (top left), Encore presentation (top right), VIPs: CEO Kyounghee Rhee – standing, and Board member Gunna Jung – seated next to me (bottom left), audience questions (bottom right)

In addition to the campuses, 19 local activity centers will allow older adults to connect closer to home. 

To tap older adults’ energy and creativity, Seoul 50Plus is creating a “platform” that fosters participant-led efforts. In its first year, the Western Campus fostered 120 such peer groups whose efforts included volunteering, on-campus activities (cooking classes, choral singing, carpentry) and walking groups.

First anniversary program: Seeding a national movement

The Seoul 50Plus first anniversary celebration combined global and local perspectives. Representatives from 40 local governments in South Korea attended to learn and begin planning their own versions. 

My “Encore Careers” program kicked off the day, with an audience of 100 program participants, staff members, leaders from other cities and academics. Questions ranged widely, including why society undervalues Korea’s “greatest generation,” how millennials should prepare for their retirement, entrepreneurship opportunities and “‘fun’ activities for the 50-plus generation.”

Counseling center (top left), Encore Career Handbook in Korean (top right), meeting room for community-organized groups (bottom left), Dr. Donghee Han (3rd from left), with colleagues and students at Seoul 50Plus event (bottom right)

Afternoon speakers included government supporters and staff members, celebrating the first year’s successes and sharing plans for the coming year.

Other positive aging work

Seoul’s second-largest city, Busan, is home to the Research Institute for Science and Better Living for the Elderly (RISBLE). Led by Dr. Donghee Han, a gerontologist, professor and positive-aging leader, its activities include computer training that helps older adults stay connected, programs forAlzheimer’s patients and intergenerational programs. Dr. Han also represents South Korea in the Active Aging Consortium of Asia Pacific (ACAP). She was a gracious host, and I look forward to connecting more closely with ACAP and its programs.

Interviews and Encore outreach

In support of the Seoul 50Plus work and other activities, I spoke with a Busan newspaper and two Seoul-based papers, one of which focuses on business. 

In a country just starting to think about second acts for older adults, all were interested in my encore story and career plans at age 61. Other topics included Encore.org’s work, the U.S.encore landscape, corporate support for retiree transitions, preparing for post-retirement life and generational conflict, particularly around jobs.

I also wrote an Encore overview piece for the Active Aging Consortium Asia-Pacific newsletter, introducing our work and inviting members to get in touch.

Closing thoughts

Seoul 50Plus has an impressive vision, talented staff and first-class facilities. It’s inspiring to spend time on their campus. Their balance of staff-led efforts with grass-roots leadership is powerful, as is their commitment to experiment, learn and fine-tune.

Structural and cultural forces beyond the organization’s control create challenges, particularly ageism, mandatory retirement and a lack of awareness about the value of experienced talent. That said, Seoul 50Plus has had an impressive first year, and it’s an important addition to the global landscape. I look forward to sharing news and best practices from their work and continuing our strong relationship.

Learn more

Seoul 50Plus Foundation website

Headlines from my media interviews 

Article for the Active Aging Consortium Asia Pacific newsletter

Encore Careers presentation –video