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[EDITORIAL] Fast-aging Korea

[THE INVESTOR] Recent government data sounded the alarm on the need for South Korea to urgently brace itself for a rapidly aging society.

Statistics Korea said that the number of citizens aged 100 or older had surged 72 percent from 2010. The figure showed that 3,159 centenarians were living in the country as of November 2015, up from the 1,835 five years earlier.

As life expectancy gets longer steadily, 13.1 percent of South Korea’s 50.6 million population were 65 or older in 2015, said the state statistical office. The proportion of elderly people in the country is forecast to exceed 20 percent by 2026 and reach 45 percent by 2060.

The rapidly aging population, coupled with the lowest birthrate among major advanced nations, is posing a slew of socioeconomic problems for Korea. Experts have warned that the country will struggle with a labor shortage, fiscal strains caused by rising welfare costs, chronic economic sluggishness and excessively conservative trends dominating society.

Debate has been galvanized in recent years on how to cope with changes in the demographic structure. But government policymakers and society as a whole still seem to lack a sense of urgency in addressing demographic challenges.

Government policies, including expanding support for child care, have not led to a meaningful rise in the number of newborns in recent years, as young Koreans are delaying marriage and childbirth due to deepening economic uncertainties as well as a growing sense of individualism.

A low birthrate might be unavoidable in this modern era. However, the latest statistics should prompt us to think about what the government and society have been doing and what policymakers need to do to prevent a demographic crisis.

Countries that have succeeded in putting the brakes on a freefall in the fertility rate, such as France and the U.K., have spent 3 to 4 percent of their gross domestic product for many years to fight the decline.

In contrast, Korea, which only began to set aside a budget for boosting birthrate about 10 years ago, has been spending less than 1.5 percent of its GDP per annum. This shows that society is not taking the problem seriously yet.