What to do for our aging society?
I went to Japan for a short vacation, and just as I was approaching downtown Tokyo from Narita Airport, the news ticker on the train indicated that Sharp had marked the biggest deficit in its history. In the 2011 fiscal year, the company’s deficit is expected to be 290 billion yen ($3.78 billion). Sharp is not the only Japanese company that is struggling. Panasonic’s deficit of 700 billion yen is also the largest in its history, and Sony will likely have a deficit of 220 billion yen by the end of next month.
Partly because of the news Tokyo seemed gloomier than usual. Recently, the University of Tokyo’s Earthquake Research Institute announced that there is a 70 percent chance that an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 or higher will strike the capital region in the next four years. I was already anxious before the trip because of the possibility that Mount Fuji would erupt. On Feb. 3, the second day of my trip, 20,000 people participated in large-scale earthquake drills near Tokyo Station, Shinjuku Station and Ikebukuro Station.
I was at Shinjuku Station, where I boarded the train to the resort town of Hakone. The restroom on the train was clean and spacious, but the position of the emergency alarm caught my eye. On trains in Korea, the alarm button is usually located at chest height. But on the Japanese train, it was only 20 centimeters (7.9 inches) from the floor so that a stroke victim could reach it in case of a fall. That may reflect the measures taken as Japanese society ages.
Korea is also becoming an aging society. Japan’s working-age population, composed of people ages 15 to 64, began to shrink in 1995. Korea’s working-age population is expected to peak in 2016, four years from now.
As of 2010, there were 6.6 people of working age supporting one senior citizen. But by 2030, the ratio of working-age people to senior citizens will be three to one, and by 2040, it will be two to one. Eventually, it will be one to one. But seniors are not the only ones that need support. People who work are also responsible for feeding and raising children.
I am in my 50s now, and it is very scary and worrisome to think that this could be my future when I get old. When politicians make rosy promises for hefty welfare plans, I wonder whether they consider what will happen 20 or 30 years later. Unlike the forecast for earthquakes in Japan, predictions about the aging of Korean society are not likely to be wrong.
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.