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[Weekender] Korea’s ‘graynaissance’ stars

From YouTube to the catwalk, seniors find new platforms for later-life success

June 7, 2019 - 09:40 By Lee Sun-young
It seems age really is no barrier to success nowadays.

A 72-year-old Korean vlogger who clumsily tries things that her granddaughter and her generation are into is an international YouTube star, with over 900,000 subscribers to her channel. On Instagram, 75-year-old grandparents post their drawings daily for grandkids, which has eventually developed into a new career for them as artists with 387,000 followers.

Kim Chil-doo

A 63-year-old owner of a humble eatery in Siheung, Gyeonggi Province, Kim Chil-doo is now the face of telecom giant KT’s massive marketing campaign for fifth-generation mobile network technology. Not only that, the rookie model appears in a beer commercial and an outdoor brand fashion catalogue.

Welcome to the Korean “graynaissance,” in which people in their 60s, 70s and even 80s find fame, recognition as well as a huge social media following for being who they are.

“I thought I couldn’t die like this. Life has been so unfair to me. So I hung in there as long as I could,” says Park Mak-rye, who goes by her nickname “Korean Grandma” on YouTube, in her video blog posted Tuesday. “Look at me now. This day has come. You all hang in there, too,” she said, celebrating the release of her book of biographical essays “Can’t Die Like This.” 

Park Mak-rye, also known as "Korean Grandma" on YouTube

As of Friday, her book sat at the No. 5 spot on the best-seller list of Korea’s largest online bookstore Yes24.

The current popularity of silver celebrities appears to be largely driven by younger audiences’ thirst for something new.

“It’s refreshing to see how she cares less about what viewers would think of her. I love her for being herself on camera: witty, down-to-earth, at times ruthlessly savage,” said Choi Hyo-jin, a 23-year-old college student, referring to Park.

The rise of gray-haired influencers is not a phenomenon confined to Korea. But this country might have the right mix to place it at the vanguard of the silver wave.

Seniors aged 65 and older accounted for 14.2 percent of the Korean population in 2017, and that figure is projected to grow to 23.7 percent in 2030. According to McKinsey & Co., this group will drive 59 percent of consumption growth from 2015-2030.

To be sure, in the world of social media, a key driving force behind the graynaissance in Korea, their presence as audience is almost unnoticeable. But it has the potential for substantial growth.

A 2018 survey found that only 3 percent of respondents aged 65 and older used social media. The figure for the 55-64 age group was 27.2 percent.

Another survey of 33,000 smartphone users by application tracker Wise App, however, revealed that those aged 50-plus spent the most time on YouTube, followed by teens and 20-somethings in the year that ended in April. Their total aggregate time spent on the video platform doubled from the corresponding period a year prior, the fastest growth among all age groups.

Numerous consumer studies have identified the silver generation as an important consumer group for retailers to target, but even with such recognition, they have typically been seen as lagging behind the trend.

“The latest development is that more seniors are catching up with trends in markets, in their hobbies and other fields,” said Sangmyung University professor Lee Jun-young.

Kang In-shik, a KT executive in charge of its media content business, said, “Seniors are emerging as prosumers of their own culture (being producers and consumers at the same time). With the growth of the senior population, this is definitely drawing keen attention from businesses.”

By Lee Sun-young (