[FOUNTAIN]What will we do with all this time?“Just as a flower blooms, a wind blows, and just as the full moon rises, clouds gather,” goes a poem written by Jeong Ji-heup, a scholar from the time of King Sukjong’s reign during the Joseon Dynasty. The life of a human being, he said, is just like the petal that is blown away by the wind as soon as the flower blooms.
The poet sang that life was evanescent and in vain. Li Po, a celebrated poet of the Tang Dynasty, wrote, “Living life is like having a grand dream.” Of course, poets are philosophical. They had acquired the wisdom that allowed them to say that life was in vain.
But it was the lives of the common people that were truly lived in vain. They barely lived long enough to comprehend what life was about. The average Korean lifespan during the Joseon Dynasty was about 20 years.
Infant and child mortality rates were high, epidemics were rampant and people were helpless before natural disasters. The 27 kings of the Joseon Dynasty lived to be 47 on average, so it is no surprise that the poor died much younger. The saying “Since days of old, it has been very rare to live to 70” was long true.
But that old saying has to be revised today. According to a recently published United Nations report on the average life expectancy in major nations, Koreans’ life expectancy is now 77.9 years. This is higher than the average in developed nations, which is 76.2 years.
That figure is an impressive improvement from 33.7 in 1926, when the average life expectancy of Koreans was first surveyed. By 2020, fifteen years from now, the average life expectancy of Koreans should reach 81 years. Koreans will then be second in longevity only to the Japanese, whose average lifespan is expected to be 84.7 years by then.
Korea is aging rapidly. More and more people are living long enough to think of Peng Zu, the legendary figure said to have lived for 800 years in China. In ancient times, longevity was considered one of the five blessings, along with wealth, health, virtue and a peaceful death.
But in these times, when the cynical joke goes that retirement age is 45 and staying at work until 56 makes you a thief, can we really say that living a long life is a blessing?
If a person retires in his 40s or 50s, how does he live out the remaining 20, 30 or even 40 years?
Does the government have any plans to respond to the aging of society? How are Koreans preparing for this? Men and women and old and young alike, we should think about “double-cropping” our lives. We cannot just blame the wind when the petals fall.
by Lee Sang-il
The writer is a deputy international news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.