[VIEWPOINT]An age-old problem is upon usSeveral days ago, a newspaper carried on its people page a photo of Waldo McBurney, who was honored as “America’s Oldest Worker in 2006.” From the photo of the 104-year-old Mr. McBurney talking on the phone wearing a bright smile, I did not see any signs of old age, despite the fact he is a centenarian. Experience Works, the largest training and employment organization for mature workers in the United States, annually launches a search for America’s oldest full-time worker and invites them to the Prime Time Awards week held in Washington D.C.
This year’s award winner, Mr. McBurney, works as a beekeeper on a farm near the small town of Quinter, Kansas. As he maintains over 100 beehives and is also responsible for subsequent sales of honey, he says his day flies like an arrow. The veteran started an athletic career at 65. He did long-distance competitive running at 75. Even nowadays, he says he can join in a 10-mile race easily. That’s not all. Mr. McBurney has set records in running, the long jump, discus throw and the shot put in his 90s and 100s at the Senior Olympics. In his book, “My First 100 Years!” he writes that positive living and thinking are the secrets of his longevity. He says, “Lifestyle is the more important factor.”
Everybody dreams of living in health, working and enjoying longevity. However, it is not possible for every one of us to be the oldest worker like Mr. McBurney. With the lengthening of people’s average life span, the healthy life span has been prolonged, too. As a result, the number of aged people who are physically young and able is growing rapidly. The problem is that there are no jobs for them. Creating jobs for healthy but aged people ― whose numbers are rapidly growing ― while we are living in a society where the demographic trends are moving toward a lower birth rate, is a headache for almost all advanced countries.
Following the province of Ontario, Canada, the province of British Columbia recently abolished its mandatory retirement system. “The number of British Columbians over the age of 65 will almost double in the next 25 years, so it is important we prepare for the demographic shift,” said Gordon Campbell, premier of the province of British Columbia. He also explained it was an inevitable measure for the provincial government to cope with the long-term drain of the workforce and the increase in the welfare budget.
Japan has also become an aging society, where more than 20 percent of the population is over the age of 65. It has extended mandatory retirement from 60 to 62. Japan will again extend the retirement age to 65 in 2013. The United States does not recognize mandatory retirement according to laws that ban discrimination in employment. In the United Kingdom, compulsory retirement below the age of 65 is considered to be age discrimination.
South Korea is aging faster than any society in the world. In the case of Japan, it took 24 years to become an “aged society,” where more than 14 percent of the population is over 65, as compared to an “aging society,” where more than 7 percent of the population is over 65. And it took 12 years for Japan to become a “super-aged society” from an aged society. In the case of South Korea, however, it is anticipated that it will take only 18 years and eight years, respectively.
Of course, there are people who claim there is no room to worry about jobs for aged people because there aren’t jobs for people in their 40s and 50s, or even for those in their 20s. According to a report by the National Statistical Office, among Korea’s youth, the importance of finding a proper job has drastically increased from 6.9 percent in 2002 to 29.6 percent this year.
However, it is a problem that an increasing number of people are fired from their jobs only because they are old, although they have the ability and will to work. It is not only age discrimination, but it also not desirable for our country’s future. In this sense, it is necessary for us to pay attention to the precedent set by Experience Works. This organization provides jobs for hundreds of thousands of aged people in conjunction with the Senior Community Service Employment Program, supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Labor.
They fill such positions as assistant teacher, home health aide, nurses’ assistant, assistant librarian, home repair worker and cleaner. The aged workers work more than 20 hours a week and are paid the minimum wage. By combining the local communities’ demand for service with aged people’s will to work, the program achieves the “win-win” effect of giving benefits to both sides. South Korea should also be prepared for the demographic shift in the near future. It is time for us to gather the wisdom of the whole community and be prepared to be an aged society by providing the vitality of life to the aged people who have both sound bodies and minds.
*The writer is an editorial writer and traveling correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Bae Myung-bok