The number of people aged 65 or older in South Korea surpassed 8 million for the first time last year, with the overall population growing at the slowest pace ever.
The country is one of the world’s fastest-aging societies. The proportion of elderly people relative to the population as a whole exceeded 14 percent in 2017, making Korea an “aged society.”
As of end-2019, the figure had climbed to 15.5 percent, exceeding an earlier estimate by the Bank of Korea of 14.9 percent.
The country is expected to see its population age at a faster pace down the road, as the baby boomer generation -- those born between 1955 and 1963, whose numbers amount to 7.3 million -- start joining the senior age group this year.
Korea’s low fertility rate, which fell below one last year, will further accelerate that pace. The fertility rate measures the average number of children born to a woman in her lifetime.
The country is expected to become a super-aged society by 2026, when the elderly population makes up more than 20 percent of the total. That number is projected to rise to 30 percent by 2041 and 35 percent by 2050.
The average life expectancy of Koreans rose from 65 in 1980 to 82.4 in 2016.
The increased life expectancy has led to calls for increasing the legal age limit for various welfare programs for the elderly, which is now set at 65. According to a survey of about 3,000 Seoul citizens aged 65 or older, conducted last year, the proper age when one should be regarded as a senior citizen was 72.5 on average.
It is against this background that the government is considering revising the age limit for retirement benefits to 70.
The measure would help make welfare spending more sustainable. But implementing it without thorough preparations might throw many elderly people into desperate conditions.
In recent years, Korea has recorded the highest elderly poverty rate among the member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Poverty is seen as one of the main reasons that Korea’s elderly suicide rate has remained highest among OECD members.
In terms of an index formulated by HelpAge International, a London-based rights group for older people, to evaluate conditions for seniors, Korea ranked 60th out of 96 nations in 2015. It came after Japan, Vietnam and China, which were placed eighth, 41st and 52nd, respectively.
It is necessary to increase fiscal spending to protect less fortunate elderly people from succumbing to poverty and disease. Efficient welfare spending should not be considered something that will hold back economic growth.
In addition, extraordinary efforts need to be exerted to make the aging society more vibrant by overhauling the health care, insurance, pension, housing and transportation systems and revising legal codes to adapt to demographic changes. In doing so, road maps and action plans set up by other advanced nations that have preceded Korea in becoming aged societies can be taken into account.
It is also necessary to work out measures suited to the needs of different regions, where populations have aged and continue to age at different paces. While many rural areas entered the super-aged society phase more than a decade ago, population aging has been relatively slow in Seoul and the vicinity due to an influx of young people.
For their part, individuals -- not just older people, but younger ones too -- need to make better preparations for their later years.
While increasing the birthrate is practically impossible in the near term, the country should prepare for a continuous decline in the working-age population. The number of people aged between 15 and 64 in Korea fell by more than 190,000 last year, marking the first contraction, according to recent data from the Ministry of the Interior and Safety.
More immigrants, particularly skilled ones, need to be accepted and more women should be encouraged to join the workforce.
What complicates the problem is that youth unemployment is expected to continue to worsen amid the decrease in the working-age population.
According to a report released by the Bank of Korea earlier this week, people aged 25-29 accounted for 21.6 percent of jobless people in the country in 2018, the highest figure among OECD members. For the US and Japan, the corresponding figures were 13 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively.
Korea has seen its youth unemployment rate rise since 2013, but the increase has been steeper since President Moon Jae-in took office in 2017.
To create the kind of high-quality jobs that young people prefer, the Moon government should step up efforts to make the labor market more flexible and lift barriers to the development of new industries.