[VIEWPOINT]'Active aging' will be a necessityAt the end of last year, the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation said in its report on the Korean economy that more than 14 percent of Korea's population will be at least 65 years old in 2022. Though some domestic newspapers dealt with the report, it failed to attract the attention of Koreans, overwhelmed by a series of political scandals and the nomination of presidential candidates. The JoongAng Ilbo has recently warned that the number of Koreans aged 65 years or older would reach 10 million. The number of children that an average Korean woman bears during her lifetime fell to 1.47 in 1999, indicating that our population is not being replaced.
Unlike the Korean indifference, when the number of children that a Japanese woman has during her lifetime declined below 1.5 a few years ago, the nation's prime minister held an emergency meeting to design measures to boost the low birthrate.
In April, the World Health Organization published a new policy report titled "Active Aging" to provide a road map for designing aging policies to aging countries. The report proposes that health, participation and security be the cornerstones.
Developed countries in Europe and America are already reforming pension, health insurance and medical systems, taking measures to boost old people's participation in society and designing measures to encourage childbirth. But we are only busy in solving the problems of the immediate future, to my regret.
Despite the low birthrate, it is difficult for us to design policies to encourage births because Korea has one of the world's highest population densities. We must concentrate on caring for an aging population, especially by expanding medical care facilities for the aged. Last year, the government said it would introduce private medical insurance, but without sufficient medical care facilities, the step is useless. If the government introduces a new insurance system without investing public funds in medical care facilities, private funds will have to be spent on those facilities, and they will be expensive to use. Facilities first, medical insurance later is a better plan.
We also need to reform our medical system, which focuses on hospitals and public health centers to treat acute diseases. But in an aging society, the treatment of chronic disease is also important, so the structure of our medical system should be changed to effectively treat chronic diseases and improve the overall health of senior citizens. Because aged people need welfare services as well as medical services, the fundamental structure of public health centers should be changed to provide welfare as well as health services.
A low birthrate causes problems by reducing the population of the age group that we depend on for economic production. The current national pension system, in which the next generation supports the former generation, will not be able to stave off bankruptcy. The government should conduct a fundamental reform of the contribution system for national pensions. The government also should introduce competitive principles into health insurance to improve efficiency, considering that the population in the age group that makes payments into the system is declining. The government should link the reform of health insurance to its medical system reform.
As far as senior citizens' participation in society is concerned, participating as part of the work force is the most important point. The suitable age for retirement should be reconsidered. In reality, people in their late 50s have already withdrawn from work- places because companies have encouraged earlier retirement since the 1997-98 foreign exchange crisis. As a result, jobs without a fixed retirement age such as medical doctors, pharmacists and lawyers have become more popular and young competent people are flocking to colleges and universities related to those professions. In order to make "active aging" a reality and also to prevent talented people from concentrating on only a few jobs, the retirement age should be reviewed and ways to encourage more senior citizen jobs should be worked out.
We should recognize that we are getting old. We have to make efforts to make our aging society an active society.
The writer is the dean of the graduate school of health and environment at Yonsei University.
by Lee Kyu-sik