The Korea Herald

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Half of Koreans could be over 65 by 2072

"The government recognizes the current low birth rate as a crisis that could jeopardize the country's existence"

By Choi Jeong-yoon

Published : Dec. 17, 2023 - 15:49

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South Korea could see a more than 40 percent decline in its population in 50 years' time, with half of its people aged over 65, a recent report released by Statistics Korea showed.

The worst-case scenario in the agency’s projections for the country’s population between 2022-2072 forecast the nation's population would plummet to 30.1 million over the next five decades.

The state-run statistics agency came up with three different forecasts -- one optimistic, one median, and one pessimistic -- depending on the country's near-future fertility rates.

Under its central scenario the total population, which currently stands at some 51.7 million, will drop to 51.3 million in 2030, and eventually to 36.2 million in 2072.

The agency expects near-term declines in the total fertility rate, which is the average number of children born per woman in her childbearing years, set at 15-49 years old.

The number of babies expected to be born per woman will continue to fall through 2025, by which point the fertility rate is expected to hit 0.65 under the central scenario. South Korea already recorded the world’s lowest fertility rate at 0.78 as of 2022. But it also predicted it would rise later on.

Under the most optimistic scenario, the agency expected the total fertility rate to stand at 1.34 in 2072.

Under the median scenario, the rate is expected to be 1.08 in 2072. This is still considered optimistic by some observers, as it assumes that current fertility rates will increase by more than 30 percent. However, this figure would still put South Korea last among the 38 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The minimum fertility rate that a country needs to maintain its population is 2.1 children. This means that each woman must have at least two children to avoid population decline. However, the projection on fertility rates between 2023 and 2072 showed no numbers close to the 2-point mark.

This is adding to the societal aging brought on by extended life expectancy.

The number of people aged 65 or higher is likely to increase dramatically from the current 9 million to over 17 million in 50 years. This means the proportion of the elderly population would increase to 47.7 percent by 2072, from 17.4 percent in 2022, outnumbering the productive population. No other country to date has had more than 40 percent of the total population aged over 65.

The median age -- the age at which exactly half of the population is younger and half is older, will also rise from 44.9 years old in 2022 to 63.4 years old in 2072.

The median age has gradually risen as life expectancy increases. The median age, which was 20 in 1976, reached 30 in 1997 and 40 in 2014.

“With the current level, the number of people to support per 100 people of working age will continue to rise from 40.6 in 2022 to 118.5 in 2072,” the agency predicted. This would mean that one economically active individual has to support an average of 1.2 senior citizens or children.

If the country’s drive toward the so-called demographic cliff accelerates as predicted, its economically productive population -- those aged 15 to 64 -- is expected to be reduced to 45.8 percent of the total by 2072, a huge drop from the 71.1 percent logged last year. This would make Korea the only country on the list below the 50 percent threshold.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare, which is responsible for population policy, said it was taking the matter seriously.

"The government recognizes the current low birth rate as a crisis that could jeopardize the country's existence," said Lee Ki-il, the first vice minister of health and welfare, during Thursday's meeting.

The government plans to release a revised version of the basic plan to tackle the low birth rate and rapidly increasing aging population by early next year. The committee for the declining birth rate, run directly under the presidential office, is expected to focus on measures to ease the burden of child care, such as mandating parental leave and raising incomes for those on parental leave.