An insurer’s take on the graying of Korea

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An insurer’s take on the graying of Korea

In tackling the issue of an aging society, it is important that every group involved - the government, the private sector and individuals - stay active rather than wait for someone else to take action, said Marianne Gilchrist, head of health solutions at Swiss Reinsurance Company.

“It’s the coordination and communication that’s really most important,” Gilchrist said in a recent interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily. “It’s fair to say that everybody wants to develop a good solution to the issue, so whether they’re not being developed isn’t the lack of will, but it’s the severe difficulties in managing the issue.”

Gilchrist, who joined Swiss Reinsurance in January 2012, spoke a day after the Europe-based company held a health symposium last month in Seoul to bring together stakeholders that can work together to fill the health protection gap.

A health protection gap is the difference between the level of health care costs required to meet consumer needs and the amount available to cover those costs if the total expenditure remains a constant percentage of the gross domestic product.

The issue of aging in Korea has been a growing social concern. According to Gilchrist, the population of Koreans aged 60 years or more has been increasing rapidly since 1975 and will continue to rise until 2050. The share of the population aged 60 or more in 1975 was 5.6 percent, and the proportion is likely to increase to 41 percent by the middle of this century.

Q. Is Europe also tackling the issue of an aging society? Is the rate of aging as high as in Korea and Japan?

A. It’s not as high. That’s the biggest challenge facing Asia, and particularly here in Korea. It’s just the sheer pace of aging. China has an issue, too. Many people say about China that they worry it will grow old before it grows rich. In countries that had rapid economic development, of which Korea is one, people at least have some opportunity to save to buy a home, to put money aside for their retirement years. Relatively speaking, if you look at OECD averages, Korea is in good shape compared to countries like China. It [China] just hasn’t had as long to benefit from that. One thing is that it’s important to view aging as a positive process - trying not necessarily to see the negative side of that. People who have stopped working full time can be economically active and engaged in society. It doesn’t mean that they’re a drag on the society [because they are old]. They can contribute in different ways. It’s almost like we need to reinvent the aging process to leverage the positive aspects of aging.

How to cope with an aging society is a very important issue. Is there a solution to it?

There’s no single solution. How we deal with that in a way that respectfully treats older people and gives them an active role in society is important. Social engagement is a key factor that we see in many countries. There is no single factor, and that’s why we split the discussions into four segments. Data from organizations like the World Health Organization has shown there can be a downward impact on economic growth in an increasingly aging population. A coordinated policy approach toward managing the implications of the aging population is important.

Do you believe Korea will follow the path of Japan in terms of an aging society?

From an aging perspective, there are some similarities in the trends. But with Korea, the aging process is happening much faster even than it did in Japan. So that’s why we see that rapid multiplication of the number of people over 60 from 10 percent in 2010 to 30 percent coming up in the next couple of decades. It’s a much faster process. Korea’s seen very rapid change - a social change. The society grew up very quickly and so fast that we’re seeing the source of trend that’s happened in Japan happen here. Older people living away from their families, being less dependent on their families, and many of the social issues that follow that are also happening in Korea. But that doesn’t mean to say that it’s inevitable, and that what’s happened there has to happen here. At the end of the day, there are social differences, economic differences, and there is ability for interventions to happen at all levels.

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