Kim Hyang-soo tightened his shoelaces, grabbed his backpack and hit the subway one recent hot summer day in central Seoul.
At 75, he wasn’t taking a joy ride. He was setting out to do something that escapes many older citizens of South Korea: an enjoyable day’s work.
Dressed in a black-and-white camouflage vest and a baseball cap pulled just above his eyes, the gray-haired grandfather of eight was starting his shift as a package delivery man.
Most days, as Kim cruises the capital’s vast subway network while making three or four deliveries, he’ll rub shoulders with much younger workers. He proudly gives up a seat reserved for elderly riders when he sees someone he believes really needs it.
Though the pace isn’t always easy, working has made him feel young again.
“To me, nothing is better than this job,” said Kim, who joined the delivery service in 2007 after recovering from a stroke. “I need to keep moving and stretching.”
Kim is part of a company, Silver Quick Subway Delivery Service, that employs people many believe to be unemployable: those older than 65.
The company operates counter to many others in South Korea, which look for employees to retire in their mid- or late 50s. The country’s Labor Ministry is encouraging firms to raise the retirement age to help increase employment of people in their 50s and older.
By 2050, South Korea will become the most aged society among the 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to government statistics. Nearly four of 10 South Koreans are projected to be older than 65 by that time.
The idea for a door-to-door delivery business hit company owner Bae Gee-geun, 60, like one of those speeding subway trains.
In 2001, he was a restaurant owner bothered by the slowness of express delivery in a city plagued by traffic. Then he walked past a park crowded with senior citizens.
Bae posted recruitment fliers at city parks and senior centers and on subway trains seeking workers for his delivery business. Eventually, gray-haired and sometimes slow-moving job applicants showed up at his door.
Bae’s 40-person staff delivers a wide range of items, varying from clothing and flowers to documents and letters. The workers, about half of them women, earn as much as $800 a month, which supplements their pensions or assistance from relatives and helps them sustain a vibrant lifestyle, several said. The company saves money because senior citizens ride the subway free.
Generally, the staff works from about 8 or 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. “I tell them not to do any heavy stuff,” Bae said.
Problems arise at times. Some elderly workers have become confused in crowds, and taken trains in the wrong direction. Others have hearing problems.
At day’s end, they get to relax with colleagues, sipping coffee and trading stories like soldiers.
“People say I look really happy,” said Lee Sang-moo, 74, a former insurance saleswoman. “My family likes me doing this job because I am getting healthier.”
Several clients said they liked the idea of relying on older people.
“It is nice to see them working really hard,” said client Kim Ji-hye, 23, handing Kim Hyang-soo a plastic bag of metal parts for dispatch.
Package in hand, Kim rushed to catch the next subway train. He later called his boss by cellphone with a proud message: Mission accomplished.