The Best Social Safety Net Lies in Family, Friends – As South Korea’s Experience Shows

The Best Social Safety Net Lies in Family

Pearl S. Buck noted in The Good Earth that elderly people in early 20th Century China considered their retirement assured if they had children. The Confucian ethic of “filial piety” (loyalty, respect, and service to one’s elders) meant that adult children felt obligated to care for their aging parents. This was the traditional “social security” in Confucian countries.

South Korea, a country strongly influenced by Confucianism, is undergoing a sea change on the topic of filial piety. The Economist reported in December 2013 that South Korean national statistics show that in 1998, a full 90% of Koreans believed children should support their aged parents. By 2013, only one-third believed that to be true.

Yet government has not filled the gap with pensions for the older generation. In fact, reflecting the Confucian roots of South Korea, the law has been that if older persons have children capable of taking care of them, that is a sufficient pension.

Poverty afflicts many older South Koreans, even as the nation has emerged as one of the world’s wealthiest. In past days, South Korean parents invested everything in their children’s success, particularly their education. The return on investment was assumed to be devoted care for the rest of the parents’ lives. However, highly competitive, fast-paced modern South Korean society left these and other traditions behind. Beyond that, young Koreans tended to migrate from rural areas to the cities, leaving their parents behind or moving into urban spaces that were not conducive to several generations living together.

Unfortunately, in addition to the economic impact of these changes, they have also imposed tremendous psychological and social impact on South Korea’s elderly too. Caught between the expectations of traditional culture and the realities of modern days, Korea’s elderly commit suicide at one of the highest rates in the developed world. According to a report in the New York Times, the suicide rate among the elderly in South Korea nearly quadrupled from 2000–2010.

Some might say that dependence on an outmoded Confucian ethic like filial piety is to blame for the high suicide rate among the older generation. Yet, is such an ethic outmoded? Or is it eminently practical?

Is such an ethic really outmoded? Or is it eminently practical?

According to Christine Benz, writing for Morningstar, 78% of American seniors who need long term care receive it from family and friends, not institutions. This is important because nearly half of the elderly who need long term care (40%) are at the poverty level or close to it. Even affluent Americans can burn through their assets once they need long term care. Without the loving aid of close friends and relatives, thousands of elderly persons would be accessing Medicaid or simply doing without proper care.

An American senior who has a good relationship with an adult child, another family member, or a friend with whom he or she may move in when serious care is needed, will save thousands of dollars. Nursing homes can cost $80,000 or more per year, depending on location and quality.

The solution of a senior moving in with an adult child, another family member or a friend will also avoid the debilitating loneliness that grips many seniors and adversely affects their health and psychological well-being. This may be the most important consideration in resolving where the senior resides.

Maybe Confucius had it right. No social program can replace the safety net of family and friends.



Benz, Christine. (August 9, 2012). Must-Know Statistics about Long Term Care. Available online at

Choe, Sang-Hun. (February 16, 2013). As Families Change, Korea’s Elderly Are Turning to Suicide. New York Times. Available online at:

The Economist. (December 27, 2013). Poor Spirits. Available online at: