Korea braces for aged society

By Claire Lee

Nation tries to cope with low birthrate and generation disputes

  • Published : Jul 24, 2014 - 21:18
  • Updated : Jul 24, 2014 - 21:18
Recent statistics and studies say today’s Korean senior citizens are anxious, bored and not too healthy.

More than 70 percent of the elderly do not engage in leisurely activities, and a growing number are suffering from anxiety disorders. In 2011, a Korean aged 65 or older had an average of 3.34 chronic diseases, with diabetes and osteoporosis being especially common.

With the lowest birthrate among the OECD nations and a rising elderly population, South Korea faces a series of challenges, including generational disputes and welfare politics.

On Friday, Korean senior citizens receive their first payout under the new basic pension program, a key pledge of the Park Geun-hye administration.

The poorest 70 percent of the nation’s elderly receive a monthly allowance from 100,000 won to 200,000 won ($98 to $194) through the revised program, up from 97,000 won a month. The government is planning to provide more programs for seniors, including public employment services.

“Many tend to think of senior citizens as society’s burden,” said professor Lee Geum-ryong from Sangmyung University, in a recent academic forum held in Seoul. “We need to (support them) so they can be productive and active members of society. Many (of the seniors) that I have met are more than willing to offer what they have to the world.”

The Welfare Ministry predicts that those who are 65 or older will account for 24.3 percent of the nation’s entire population by 2030, and 40.1 percent by the year 2060. Meanwhile, Korea’s working-age population is likely to decline. According to the OECD, the number of individuals in the workforce per senior citizen in Korea is predicted to drop to 1.96 by the year 2036, from this year’s 5.26.

One of the biggest reasons behind Korea’s low birthrate is the “sampo generation,” those among the nation’s young people who give up dating, marriage and having children because of a lack of financial means. High university tuition and housing costs are among their toughest challenges.

Kim Kyung-hwa, a graduate student majoring in social welfare at Ewha Womans University, said the current government focuses too much on the elderly population, while failing to acknowledge the needs of citizens in their 20s and 30s.

“Korean baby boomers are about to enter old age, but it seems like the Seoul Metro is not considering changing the current rule that allows seniors to take trains for free,” she said.

“Almost 30 percent of the budget of the National Health Insurance is spent on senior citizens. The government tries to create jobs for seniors, while many young people work with no job security.”

The government is trying to come up with measures to please both the young and elderly generations. One of them is the “home sharing” program organized by Seoul’s Seodaemun-gu office, in which elderly empty-nesters with an extra room in their house are paired up with a university student who needs affordable housing.

The students pay a monthly rent of 200,000 won to 250,000 won, without paying a deposit. According to the district office, a college student usually needs to pay a 10 million won deposit and 400,000 won to 500,000 won in monthly rent to secure housing in the area.

“The participating seniors had been living alone or living only with their spouse,” said Park Min-jae from the Seodaemun-gu office. “The students can save money on housing while the seniors will have someone to spend time with and help them with domestic affairs.”

Choi Yoon-seul, a participating student who has lived with a senior for two weeks, said one of the best things about the program is the big breakfast she gets every morning. “I get fish and rice cakes for breakfast and it’s awesome,” Choi, whose parents live in Gyeonggi Province, said. She now lives only five minutes away from her school.

“I help her with computers and smartphones. She loves to talk over breakfast, and I mostly listen. Watching her being so happy to have someone to talk to made me realize how lonely she must have been (to live alone after her children moved out).”

Jeong Kyung-hee, a researcher at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, said the public should not criticize seniors for expressing their needs.

“The younger generation will eventually age, too,” she said. “The experience of today’s seniors, as well as how their needs are being addressed now, will be a valuable resource for future generations.”

By Claire Lee (