It’s just a stageMonaco on the French Riviera is the world’s most aged country. The median age of its population of 36,371 is 51.1, which means one out of two Monacans are over 50. The economic and social repercussions are not much of a problem for a state with nonstop revenue from casinos and tourism. It is said to be one of the favorite places for billionaires around the world to live in their old age. But in most other countries, such a high median age would be a heavy burden due to the hefty cost of social welfare and a thinning working population
But too low a median age is not so good either. The average age in Uganda is 15.5. Its average longevity is 52.2, and its birthrate is relatively high at 5.9. Nations in Africa and Asia suffering from poverty, civil wars and other kinds of conflicts have lower median ages. Demographic factors are often behind refugee crises, in which young people flee hunger, military violence and climate disasters in search of better lives in European nations. The young desert their home countries after they lose hope for changes from political reform.
Demographic experts say 35 is the ideal median age for a nation to run on. While the median age is between 40 and 45 for most advanced countries, the average age in the United States is lower at 37.6. Experts are hopeful for the United States because of the relatively young median age. They say the U.S. economy fought through its financial crisis relatively well because its population is relatively young.
Korea is aging at the fastest pace in the world. Our median age, which was 19 in 1950, shot up to the 30s in 2000. Last year, it hit 40.8, becoming the 41st oldest in the world. By 2040, Korea is expected to become older than Monaco, with its median age at 52.6, the result of a low birthrate coupled with rapid aging.
Hur Tae-kyun, a professor of psychology at Korea University, claimed in a book that Korea is going through an “outlandish adolescence.” The country was lucky to be born with good genes. It grew faster than similar countries and achieved social and economic prosperity at an unprecedentedly staggering pace. But it now faces social and emotional challenges typical of the adolescent developmental stage. The people are contentious and divided in evaluating the past, and full of angst and frustration from discontent about their status quo. The entire country is belatedly suffering the symptoms of an anxiety-provoking transitional stage, though the median age is already in middle age.
But one cannot enter adulthood without going through the tumultuous period of adolescence. An individual cannot be fully conscious of its self-identity without combating the inexplicable dramas of the teenage years. Hur maintains that outlandish behavior emerges during adolescence in order to ensure stability and steadiness in later life. In short, Korea must accept and go through this inevitable stage to become a more mature society.
Parenting is crucial in taming and guiding teenagers. Politics must take the role of parenting for a country in a period of adolescent angst. Political leaders should pay attention to the complaints and anger of the people and try to offer comfort and relief. Wednesday’s election to elect the 300-member legislature is therefore crucial to our future. But we cannot get our hopes up from what we have seen so far on the campaign trail.
Professor Hur claims that Koreans have a knack for doing things well when confidence and responsibility are given to them. Legislators would do their work better if they were given more authority and responsibility. The president holds the key. The never-ending confrontations in the legislature won’t end if the president continues to regard the legislature as a subordinate subject to be controlled and bossed around. No bottlenecks will be fixed if the ruling party serves the president as her slave and the opposition is forced into the position of merely opposing the government on everything.
Hur advises that a wise leader should at times feign laziness and impotence to allow more chances for others to perform their roles better. That is the only way to normalize our politics and help the country pass through the turmoil of adolescence and into a calmer stage of maturity.
JoongAng Ilbo, April 12, Page 31
*The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.