[Editorial] Defining old age

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[Editorial] Defining old age

A recent survey by the city of Seoul shows that a majority of 3,010 senior citizens 65 or older thought that the old age begins at 72.6, about eight years older than the current 65. After both the Daegu mayor and Seoul mayor said they would consider a lifting of the standards for the elderly, the debate is gaining momentum.

In 1981, when the National Assembly enacted a law aimed at respecting the elderly, their numbers accounted for only three percent of the entire population. Their average life expectancy was also low at 66.1, compared to the current 83.6. That means the situation has greatly changed over the past four decades.

At age 65, Koreans are entitled to get several benefits starting with the basic pension (320,000 won a month), as well as discounts for medical costs, dental implants, tax-exempt savings and various types of subsidy from local governments. That poses a heavier fiscal burden to the government. The budget for the basic pension almost tripled to 20 trillion won ($15.9 billion) this year from 7 trillion won in 2014. Seoul city said it suffers an annual loss of 370 billion won to fund senior citizen’s free subway rides.

That helps build fiscal pressure. Next year, the senior population is expected to reach 10 million (19.4 percent of the total population). If the baby boomers join the group en masse, the expected ratio of elderly in Korea (37 percent) will exceed that of Japan (36.7 percent) in 2045. By 2070, nearly half the entire population will be over 65.

A uniform definition of people aged 65 or older as “the elderly” may sound unreasonable, particularly given their relatively strong physical conditions and brisk social and economic activities today. In 2015, the Korea Senior Citizens Association (KSCA) also proposed a gradual lifting of the standard. The debate is unavoidable when the country faces the challenges of utterly low birth rate and fast aging.

Yet the debate must not focus on depriving senior citizens of their previous benefits, considering “the blind spots which will appear if their benefits decrease with no income sources,” as KSCA president Kim Ho-il warned. If the government rushes to cut their benefits, it could break the social safety net in a country whose poverty rate for older population is the highest among OECD member countries.

The debate must be held together with other issues, such as their retirement age, employment and welfare. Fortunately, the discussion on the national pension reform is being converged to extending the subscription period and delaying the age to receive pensions. The timing is good to discuss the issue of lifting the standard for seniors.
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