‘Elders’ in South Korea Prefer Employment over Entrepreneurship


Employees at a major South Korean corporation who reach their 50s without being promoted to executives or team leaders are referred to as “elders,” a play on the word “leader.” Lee, a 46-year-old team leader at this company, noted that a decade ago, senior employees who missed out on promotions would retire early and open small businesses like convenience stores or chicken shops, seeking a ‘second life.’ Nowadays, there’s a trend of sticking it out until retirement.

The treatment of elders varies by job category. In office departments, leaders in their late 40s often assign simple tasks, such as reviewing accounting documents, to elders to help them adapt to new trends. In manufacturing departments, where the hierarchy is stiffer, elders are frequently divided into distinct teams to undertake quality checks, reducing awkward circumstances.

In South Korea, more workers in their 50s are opting to stay with their companies rather than venture into self-employment as they approach retirement. Unlike the first-generation baby boomers (born 1955-1963) who would leave to open small businesses, the second-generation baby boomers (born 1964-1974) are learning from their predecessors’ experiences and choosing to continue their corporate careers under younger supervisors.

Statistics Korea and the Ministry of SMEs and Startups reported that the average tenure of normal pay workers in South Korea was 98 months last year, the longest since records began in 2004.
This represents a 10-month increase from 88 months in 2015, when first-generation baby boomers began retiring. The increase in tenure appears to be associated with a decline in entrepreneurship among people in their fifties. Last year, 262,877 people in their 50s started new businesses, marking a decline for three consecutive years and the lowest number since 2016 (288,138). The proportion of entrepreneurs in their 50s also hit a record low at 21.2%.

Kim, a 47-year-old department head at a major IT company with 20 years of experience, said, “When I encounter retired seniors who have stepped into entrepreneurship, they frequently quote the webtoon ‘Misaeng,’ saying, ‘The firm is a battleground, but the outside world is hell,’ and discourage others from launching their own businesses.” He added, “There is a popular notion that if huge corporations struggle, how can small firms catering to office workers thrive?
This mindset is so entrenched that many in their 40s and 50s desire to stay until retirement, even if they continue in mid-level managing jobs.”

A 50-something banker echoed, “Although it’s late in my career, staying at the bank and working hard is preferable to fighting to survive outside.” An employee at a major grocery chain that recently provided early retirement said, “Even when department heads born around 1980 are promoted, those born in the 1970s who miss out on promotions do not quit as much as they used to.”Many adapt to new tasks, such as shop organizing, since they have young children and believe there are no better possibilities outside.”

Read More: Click Here