Declare an emergency
The popularity of two KBS TV programs speaks of an interesting development in South Korea. The shows are “Gayo Mudae,” one of the national broadcaster’s oldest programs popular among elderly Korean fans at home and abroad, and the health documentary “Mysteries of the Human Body.”
On Nov. 17, “Gayo Mudae” registered a viewership rating of 15.1 percent, beating the 10 p.m. Monday dramas on other channels. “Mysteries of the Human Body” also gathered a rating of nearly 10 percent in the same week, double the viewership of Wednesday dramas, in competition with channels that featured a singer-actor who has global fame and a female idol star. Both programs are themed on “aging” and their viewers are elderly. This surge in the older population has affected the TV viewership landscape.
Two years ago, there were 2,386 people aged 100 or more living in South Korea. The media cited smoke- and alcohol-free lifestyles, good eating habits, health and happy family life as reasons for their longevity. That same year, the national statistics office predicted on Oct. 2 Elderly Day that the population aged 100 or more will reach 10,000 in 2030 and 20,000 in 2040. As of the end of October this year, there are already 14,853 people aged 100 and over. The growth of the elderly population has far outpaced the statistical forecast.
A comment from a senior official from the Health Ministry suggesting a separate levy on single-member households has caused an uproar on the Internet. A reform on government employees’ pension plans remains a contentious political issue. But from a demographic perspective, these talks are vain. South Korea, which achieved “compressed growth” over the last half-century, will undergo a “compressed aging” process over the next half. It is not just the elderly aged over 90 - all 170,000 of them - that are a problem. There are 1.1 million in their 80s and 3.14 million in their 70s.
In contrast, there are only 4.6 million people between age 0 and nine, and six million between 10 and 19. A bigger problem is those in their 40s and 50s - each numbering eight million - the baby-boomer generation. Once they retire, the aged population will overwhelm and pose conflict between generations. It won’t be just a makeover of pensions and levies on singles that make policy agenda. The state may have to campaign for early deaths.
The proponents of the universal welfare system argue that the losses from free subway fares for people aged 65 and more are a “good” deficit. They help elderly citizens come out more, improve their health and reduce the suicide rate. But how long the free fare system can be sustained is questionable. When free fares for elderly passengers were first introduced in 1984, people aged over 65 took up just 4 percent of the population.
The rate is now 12.2 percent. A bill to scrap the system came under legislative review 21 times, but it was rejected every time. The prime minister came under heavy fire from the elderly association after he suggested reducing the benefit in 2010. Free subway fares have become almost sacred. The Saenuri Party cannot risk losing its primary conservative elderly voters. The opposition party, which advocates for universal welfare policy, also won’t think of it. Deficits in subway operations will just go on widening without scrapping the free fares for senior citizens and self-reform.
Thomas Malthus foretold the problems of food shortages from overpopulation in his famous “Theory of Population” more than two centuries ago. His theory was based on the assumption that populations will multiply much quicker than the Earth will be able to find food for man. He forecast that a food crisis and social collapse could be avoided only by controlled population growth. He first suggested moral constraints or celibacy and birth control. This, he agreed, was unreliable and unrealistic. Instead he was more inclined to large-scale deaths through famine, epidemics, war and other natural disasters.
South Korea will soon have to declare war with the aging population. Since we cannot adopt Malthus’s extreme ways, we should instead try to find a solution through good sense and compassion. We can no longer sustain a society where one works for 30 years and lives as a retiree for 40. The government’s future committee has suggested raising the senior citizen threshold age to 70, and in the long run, to 75. This would lead to a revision in the retirement age and pension system. Politicians who should be offering foresight are instead blinded by immediate votes and are still wasting time wrangling over universal welfare policies.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 24, Page 30
*The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Chul-ho