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May 2009 Dispatch - The Costs of Informal Caregiving by Invisible Caregivers in South Korea

East and Southeast Asia are aging rapidly. South Korea, for example, has become one of the fastest aging societies in the world. In France, 115 years (1865–1980) were required for the proportion of population aged 65 and over to rise from 7 percent to 14 percent, but in South Korea, it is expected that a comparable change will occur in only eighteen years (2000–2018). More strikingly, it will take only eight years (2018–2026) for the proportion of South Korea’s elderly to increase from 14 percent to 20 percent. The nation’s old-age dependency ratio grew from 5.7 percent in 1970 to 12.6 percent in 2005, and is projected to further increase to 72.0 percent by 2050. At the macroeconomic level, these figures suggest an increasing burden on the working-age population to support the elderly population.

Such figures, however, do not tell the whole story about the burden shouldered by the working-age population. The lives of elderly and working-age individuals are not separate but rather, are linked by the institution of the family. Working-age adult children often take on the role of caring for elderly parents, who may have functional limitations and cognitive impairments. Such informal family caregiving is embedded in traditional Korean culture, as it is in many Asian societies that uphold traditional norms of filial piety.

As the elderly population grows, the demand for elderly long-term care will increase sharply. The supply of informal care, however, is decreasing for a number of reasons. Declining fertility rates have already diminished the potential pool of family caregivers. Further reducing the availability of family caregivers is an array of socioeconomic changes, such as increased migration, decreasing rates of intergenerational co-residence, and increasing labor force participation rates among women, who have historically served as the main family caregivers. Adult children, therefore, will increasingly experience a conflict between parental care responsibilities and their own work. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many daughters or daughters-in-law give up their professional employment to care for their disabled parent(s) or parent(s)-in-law. The work-family conflict also has important implications for the economy—informal caregiving may have additional negative effects on the labor force participation of the already shrinking working-age population.

I recently conducted a study using data from the Korean Longitudinal Study of Aging. My study indicated that providing at least ten hours of care per week reduces the probability of female labor force participation by 15.2 percentage points. I concluded that informal care is already an important economic issue in South Korea even though its population aging is still at an early stage. If the current trend continues, the labor market costs of informal caregiving will increase as the country experiences the full force of the demographic transition. One of the expected benefits of the public long-term care insurance implemented in July 2008 is to help family caregivers participate more easily in the labor force. In Japan, there is some evidence that long-term care insurance positively affects female labor force participation, but such beneficial effects have not yet materialized clearly in Korea. In both countries, there is much to learn from early experience with long-term care insurance.

In most parts of Asia, informal caregivers remain invisible on the policy agenda, not only because of cultural norms that perpetuate family-centered care but also because informal care incurs no public cost. However, the demographic transition, coupled with socioeconomic changes in the region, underscores the need to examine whether informal care is really without costs, at both individual and societal levels. Throughout Asia, the challenge for public policy will be finding the optimal mix of informal, family-based and formal, socially supported elder care.