Why limit ourselves to age 65?“Korea is fast becoming an aging society, riding on a population train that has lost its growth engine,” Kim Han-gon, the head of the Population Association of Korea, said at a recent debate in describing the gravity of the country’s situation.
The event was hosted by the Civilian Future Strategy Committee, the Science and Technology Policy Institute and the Korea Institute of Public Finance under the title, “Developing policy issues for a low birthrate and an aging society.”
At the event, Kim said total population growth would cease in 15 years and that the elderly would comprise one-fourth of the population. Another presenter said that in 30 years, the national pension program will record its first deficit and the burden on social security will increase to the level of an advanced country. The fiscal strain will also worsen.
Around the same time, the Presidential Committee for National Cohesion held a discussion session on similar issues. At the event, an estimate was presented that stated that the economically active population - aged 15 to 64 - will reach its peak in 2016, recording 73 percent, and will decline to 49 percent by 2060.
If that forecast is true, a gloomy future, in which 10 economically active people will have to feed eight elderly persons and two children, is waiting for us.
Those discussion sessions are often held because Koreans view a future with a declining birthrate as a dystopia.
Up until 30 years ago, we used to worry about excessive population growth. Posters were hung on streets nationwide depicting concentrated populations in cramped areas. At the time, some argued that the environment would be polluted, the traffic hellish and growth slowed down because of too many people. And many agreed with that. But those arguments, however, disappeared quickly.
In fact, we don’t have to worry too much about the decline of the total population. Just like the arguments from 30 years ago, a fall in the population could be a blessing. The population issue is approaching us as a fear not because of the decline in the total population but the distortion in the population structure. Because the number of babies is decreasing while the elderly is increasing, the population pyramid seems to be on the verge of tipping.
There are two solutions.
One is having more babies. Over the past eight years, trillions of won were spent to encourage childbirth, but the birthrate has not gone up. If we cannot increase the birthrate, how about lowering the proportion of the elderly? It may sound like a joke, but it is not.
In Korea, an elderly person is defined as someone older than 65 years old. About 10 laws stipulate that age - a standard that came from Germany in 1889. Otto von Bismarck, the first chancellor of a united Germany, decided that the age at which people could start receiving their pensions would be 65. That was after introducing the social security system for the first time, when the socialists were trying to entice laborers. At the time, the average lifespan in Germany was 49, and von Bismarck believed that 65 was old enough to live a high-quality life based on those savings.
After the system was introduced in Korea through Japan, society began to view people over 65 years old as elderly. Japan, which is turning into an aging society faster than Korea, changed the laws related to elderly medical treatment in 2008 and increased the age limit to receive those benefits from 70 to 75.
But we cannot just increase the age limit. A goal must be set and labor, welfare and educational environments must be changed to meet the new standard. That’s more realistic than paying money to encourage childbirth.
Of course, we must think seriously about how to implement this. We cannot abruptly change the age limit to 70 or 75 without developing jobs for the elderly. We should have a grace period and increase eligibility to 70 gradually and link it to the expected increase in life expectancy.
Those with poor health or who lack the capability to work should be recognized as exceptions. When healthy elderly persons can work longer without relying on their pensions, the burden on the future generations and the government will decrease drastically.
The expected lifespan in Korea has increased by 20 years over the past 45 years. As of last year, it was 82 years. Reflecting this, 84 percent of Koreans older than 65 said the elderly were those older than 70, according to a 2011 survey by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs.
If we do nothing, the elderly will comprise 32 percent of the total population in 25 years. That is when we define the elderly as those older than 65.
If the elderly are defined as those older than 75, they will comprise only 16 percent of the population. The demographic pyramid will be maintained just like now. If raising the standard to 75 is too drastic, changing it to 70 years old can be something we can consider as a national strategy for the future.
JoongAng Ilbo, Oct. 31, Page 34
The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Kyu-youn