Korea should improve the quality of employment for older workers

Moon Jae-in 2017

Republic of Korea H.E. Mr. Moon Jae-in, President 21 September 2017 (72th Session) (United Nations, 2017)

This article is brought to you in association with OECD.

Korea should reform its employment regulations and improve social protection in order to make work more rewarding for older workers and tackle old-age poverty, according to a new OECD report.

Working Better with Age: Korea says that workers aged 50-75 years are more likely to work than their peers in other OECD countries but more often in jobs of poor quality, with low job security and wages, and limited access to social insurance. As a result, poverty rates are much higher in this age group than in almost any other OECD country.

Tackling this challenge is critical, according to the report, as Korea’s population is ageing faster than in any other OECD country. The population’s median age could reach 55 years by the mid-2050s, compared with around 40 years today. Over the same period, the old-age dependency ratio (population aged 65+ over the population aged 15-64) will increase from 20% to 70%, 20 percentage points above the OECD average.

At almost 70%, Korea’s employment rate of older workers aged 50-64 is relatively high – 6.6 percentage points above the OCED average. But most workers retire early from their main job before reaching 55 and have to start new employment or a “second career” in poor quality, highly insecure and low-paid jobs or become self-employed. Workers in Korea effectively retire at an average age of 71-73 years – the oldest of any OECD country. This implies that they typically spend 20 years in precarious employment before leaving the labour market.

For most workers, early retirement from the main job results in lower earnings and potential hardship. Korea has the second-highest rate of relative income poverty among people aged 50-64 among all OECD countries.

Structural reforms could reduce labour market duality, which affects older workers disproportionally. Measures should be taken to reduce the gap between wages and productivity, which increases with age and contributes to pushing older workers out of regular jobs, and the gap in job quality between regular and non-regular jobs.

This requires tackling employers’ practices with respect to early retirement plans while at the same time moving away from seniority-based practices for setting wages and granting promotions, reforming the hiring and dismissal rules for regular and non-regular work, and strengthening social protection. Providing good opportunities for workers to upgrade their skills and learn new ones throughout their working careers is also a key requirement for fostering longer working lives in good quality jobs.

Recent government initiatives to postpone the age of mandatory retirement, to promote a job- and competency-based system for setting wages, and to reduce working time, could help increase older workers’ productivity and improve working conditions, but questions remain as to whether these measures will be forcefully implemented.

The OECD recommends that Korea take further action in three areas.

First, employers should be encouraged to retain older workers in their main jobs, e.g. by:

  • Fostering the introduction of wage peak systems to ease the postponement of the age of mandatory (early) retirement.
  • Proactively promoting the implementation of job- and skill-based professional appraisal measures, instead of seniority-based practices.
  • Providing additional employment rights for temporary agency workers as well as new business opportunities in the temporary work agency sector.


Secondly, a number of measures could promote the employability of workers, such as:

  • Strengthening second-career guidance for middle-aged and older workers.
  • Monitoring closely the implementation of the new guidelines on working time.
  • Introducing employer-paid sick leave and a statutory cash sickness benefit to facilitate the return to the main job of workers experiencing health problems.

Thirdly, a number of measures could improve the income situation of older workers, such as:

  • Raising payments for persons over age 50 provided by the earned income tax credit and improving the coverage among older self-employed workers.
  • Targeting the Basic Pension to the most needy and increasing benefit amounts.
  • Improving the pension scheme coverage among self-employed and non-regular workers and making the scheme financially sustainable.
  • Fostering the implementation of retirement pension plans, especially in small and medium-sized enterprises.


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