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(Yonhap Feature) South Koreans learn how to play as they retire faster, live longer
By Joohee Lim
Contributing writer
SEOUL, March 7 (Yonhap) -- It's been just a year and a half since Suk Jae-yul started learning how to play the bass guitar, but he is already the leader of a band. It's a non-professional band of beginners like him and he doesn't even believe it's going to last long, as all the members are full-time employees and are under constant pressure to find spare time.

   Still, Suk, a 40-year-old project manager for an Internet company, makes sure he spends every other Friday night practicing with his six other band members. What free time he has after work and tending to family affairs, he dedicates it to composing songs or practicing his bass guitar.

   "It's not easy, especially because of time constraints, but I try to separate my work, family and hobby as much as I can," Suk said during an interview on a recent Friday evening in a basement studio in Hongdae, a bustling college campus neighborhood dotted with clubs and bars in western Seoul.

   Suk and members of his band are among the growing younger generation in South Korea who place greater importance on cultivating hobbies. The trend comes as South Koreans become more aware of the need to spend spare time meaningfully, with increasing time on their hands as they live longer and retire faster.

Suk Jae-yul (R), 40, practices bass guitar with his band in a basement studio. Although pinched for time, Suk makes it a rule to keep up his hobby for his post-retirement life later. (Courtesy of Joohee Lim)

The importance of enjoying the leisure life is receiving fresh attention in the Asian country, grappled with the issue of how best to prepare its population for life after retirement as it fast approaches an aged society. The issue gets added urgency as the baby boomers -- born between 1955 and 1963 -- have started to retire.
While leisure activities are recognized as one of the core factors in getting prepared for life after retirement, various studies show South Koreans' level of engagement in leisure activities remains low, more so in the older age groups.

   "Sam-Siki," or "Three Meal-er," has become a term used to mock retired men who eat all three meals at home with no friends to hang out with or hobbies outside the home. Retired fathers being treated as nuisances by family members have become a common theme in Korean soap operas.

   According to a June survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and other public and private institutions, the general public's overall readiness for retirement remained low, with a score of 55.2 points out of 100.

   By category, financial readiness received the lowest score of 40.5 points, followed by leisure activities with 48.1 points. The respondents were most ready in health, with 68.2 points and social networks with 63.9 points. The survey was conducted on 1,035 people aged between 35 and 65.

   Another survey by the Samsung Life Retirement Research Center last year of 453 people in their 50's found they rarely engaged in "active leisure activities" such as sports, traveling or volunteer work, while watching TV turned out to be the most popular pastime.

   South Koreans in their 50's, born after the 1950-53 Korean War, are "used to a frugal lifestyle aimed at overcoming poverty and achieving economic growth, not knowing how to play or enjoy free time," Park Ji-sung, a researcher at the Samsung Life Retirement Research Center, said in a recent publication.
"The baby boom generation spent their childhood under social and economic hardship after the Korean War," Park wrote in the December publication by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs. "They lack a so-called leisure career, thus they have limits to becoming actively engaged in various leisure activities even when they are given free time."

   Kim Sang-taek, 58, who retired two years ago from a local bank where he worked for nearly 30 years, echoes that view.

   "Cultivating a hobby wasn't something on our minds when our entire focus was on making a living and raising a family," he said.

   Kim's only outside activities constitute strolling in the nearby park and once-a-week visits to a golf range. With an apartment in the posh Gangnam district in southern Seoul and substantial savings, he doesn't feel particularly squeezed for money.

   Yet, he still feels it's too costly to go to a golf course -- the only sports he enjoys -- like he used to with his business partners. What other hobbies he can have are simply beyond his imagination because he doesn't know what's out there or where to look to start having one, he confesses.

Jongmyo Park in downtown Seoul has become a gathering place for the city's elderly with much time on their hands after retirement. (Yonhap file photo)

So, he spends his mornings, helping his wife with house chores -- something he didn't used to do while employed. In the afternoon, he mostly watches the golf channel, and in the evening, TV dramas -- also something he didn't used to do.

   "You can only hang out with your friends so much and many leisure activities such as traveling or playing golf are expensive," Kim says. "When I earned money, I didn't have time. Now that I have time, I feel it's too much of a luxury to be engaged in any money-consuming activities."
For Suk, cultivating a hobby isn't something that can wait, even if it means having to juggle between work and his family of a wife and two children.

   "It's when I am economically active I can afford to have a hobby, too," Suk said as he readied his instrument for a practice session with his band ahead of a joint performance with other non-professional bands in coming weeks. "So, I try to find as much time as I can for the band while I can."

   He had always been interested in music until one day in 2011 he decided to turn that interest into a tangible hobby by signing up for a music course. He formulated his band, "Foundation Works," with others enrolled in the course, and they are planning to record their own album of self-composed songs soon.

   "The band is an energizer for my life, helping me take a breather from my daily stress," he said. "Watching TV just isn't my way of spending free time."