Aging society presents opportunity

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Aging society presents opportunity

In a long-term national strategy meeting with experts from the private sector last month, the government announced a policy guideline to raise the official retirement age to 70 or 75 from the current 65 to prepare for a future when people on average could live to be 100. It also proposed flexibility in adjusting the retirement age so that people in later life can continue to work according to their capacity. The policy guideline would be implemented over 30 years.

The government is right in this policy direction.

It is natural for the official definition of senior citizen status to change. In the past, we generally believed a person was old when he or she turned 60. But today, few people in their 60s are considered old, either by themselves or others. It is a good bet that a 65-year-old will be the youngest person at any community center for the elderly.

In three decades, when average life expectancy is expected to reach about 90, the social concept of old age will be different than it is now. Even today, there are a growing number of people aged 65 or older who are healthy and capable of continuing to work. It would be right for the direction of public policy to reflect this changing definition of “old age.”

The country also will have to start tending to the growing imbalance in the social welfare system amid the accelerating aging of our society. As of 2012, the number of people aged 65 or older totaled 5.89 million, or 11.8 percent of the population. That number is expected to increase to 16.5 million, or 32.3 percent, by 2040 and to 17.62 million, or 40.1 percent by 2060, according to a forecast by Statistics Korea.

Meanwhile, the dependency ratio, a measure of the number of nonworking age (under 15 and over 65) people to those of working age (between 15 and 64), would rise nearly fourfold to 10:6 by 2040 from its current 10:1.6. The ratio would go up further to 10:8 by 2060. In 30 to 50 years, more than a third of Koreans will be senior citizens and there will be 10 workers to support six to eight retirees. It would be impossible for the society to support a senior group that takes up 30 percent to 40 percent of the total population. Revision of the retirement age could help alleviate the imbalance.

We need to embrace the coming aging society as an opportunity rather than a crisis. Many fear the financial and welfare cost of a shrinking work force and growing senior population. To mitigate such anxieties, we should seek a new social paradigm by incorporating the growth of aged people and changing the qualifying senior age. We must regard and treat older people not as senile, weak and dependent, but as capable, experienced and independent. We need to create a social environment where people in their 60s and 70s go on actively working and earning. The retirement age should be modified according to social concepts. Imagine 10 million out of 16.5 million people aged 65 or older in 2040 still active and productive in our society. It would be genuine boon.

Other benefit programs for senior citizens also should change according to the new age guideline. Whenever the changes begin, the government should make sure that people already receiving benefits under existing programs continue to receive them, regardless of the adjustment in retirement age.

*The writer is the president of the Korea National Council on Social Welfare and former Health and Welfare Minister.

by Chang Heung-bong
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