Japan’s homework and Korea’s challenge

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Japan’s homework and Korea’s challenge

The author is a Tokyo correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A grey-haired woman works as a server at the dessert cafe I stop by in Ginza, Tokyo. She is 70 years old and wears a white blouse and a black vest. After retiring from a bank 10 years ago, she got a job at this cafe. In Japan, it is not hard to see elderly people working at fast food chains and convenient stores.

The statistics released by Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications on Sept. 19 — Senior Citizens’ Day — makes sense. The employment rate of the population aged 65 to 69 in Japan rose to 50.3 percent, an increase for the 10th consecutive year. As Japan’s population continues to age, now 29.1 percent of the population is over age 65, the highest rate in the world. According to the UN statistics, Italy is at 24.1 percent and Finland at 23.3 percent. Korea’s figure is 17.5 percent.

The increasing employment rate of seniors is largely due to government policy. With the low birthrate, the economically active population in Japan between age 15 and 64 has decreased by 12 million in the last 25 years. To resolve the labor shortage from the population decline, Tokyo pressured companies to extend the retirement age to 65 and allow employees to work until 70.

There is a shade to the idea, too: 75.9 percent of the elderly workers are irregular employees, working part time. The average monthly wage of irregular workers over 60 is 130,000 yen ($907), a huge gap from the average monthly income of 330,000 yen of the regular employees over age 60. Society pressures senior citizens to keep working, but what they end up getting is underpaying and low-quality jobs.

But seniors still work for economic reasons. When asked why they are still working after age 60 in a 2020 survey by the Japanese Federation of Labor Unions, 77.0 percent responded that they are working “to make a living.” “To stay healthy” was 46.2 percent and “to improve the quality of life” was 33.9 percent.

After reading data from the Japanese government, I felt uneasy when I ran into working elderly citizens. What is the meaning of continuing to work even in old age, and are they satisfied with their wage? Creating a society where the elderly can work if they want and get fair compensation is the homework for Japan and a challenge for Korea, which may soon face the same problem.
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