President-elect Park Geun-hye has pledged to usher in an era of happiness for all people. Park’s aides have been working on measures to expand welfare benefits and create more jobs to back up this promise, which propelled her campaign along with her other commitment to bringing together the nation, which is divided along ideological, regional and generational fault lines.
The president-elect’s single five-year mandate, which begins on Feb. 25, is barely long enough to turn her pledge into reality. Financial feasibility of enlarging welfare schemes as planned has also been questioned by many experts, who indicate it would need far more spending than Park’s aides have projected.
The chief of her transition team came forward Thursday to dampen growing calls for modifying costly campaign pledges. Kim Yong-joon, former head of the Constitutional Court, said each of the promises had been made to voters after full consideration of its practicability and financial relevance.
As Kim argued, it may undermine public trust in the incoming administration that an exit out of the campaign pledges would be sought after even before its inauguration. That said, it still seems necessary to suggest more specific and plausible plans on how to finance the 201 programs estimated to cost at least 134.5 trillion won ($127.5 billion) over the coming five years.
Further discussion may have to be held on the relevance of some of the planned welfare expansions including providing all senior citizens aged 65 or older with a monthly allowance of up to 200,000 won regardless of their income. It would be too dogmatic to insist on giving the pension even to the richest like Samsung Group chairman Lee Kun-hee whose personal wealth was estimated at $11.4 billion last year, just to be in line with the principle of universal welfare.
A key element that we believe should be added to the work on how to effectively strengthen the social safety net and make more people feel happy with their lives is to promote lifelong learning. Improving and activating the system of lifelong education is needed not just to help people remain competitive and competent at the workplace but make their life more lively and meaningful.
Lifelong learning can be defined as self-motivated pursuit of knowledge and skills for either personal or professional reasons. Thus, it contributes to enhancing social inclusion, active citizenship and personal fulfillment beyond individual employability and competitiveness. Over the past decades, scientific and technological innovations have changed the public’s attitude toward learning, leading them to recognize that it is not confined to childhood or the classroom but goes on throughout life and in a diversity of circumstances.
In terms of traditional brick and mortar schooling, Korea is one of the best-educated nations in the world. But it remains far lower than other major countries in the proportion of people who engage in self-directed learning throughout their lives.
According to a survey by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, nearly 40 percent of Koreans aged 25-64 received university-level or higher education in 2009, compared to the OECD average of 30 percent. But slightly over 30 percent of Korean adults participated in various types of lifelong learning such as not-for-credit courses by universities, lessons at private institutes or community centers and online programs in 2010. The ratio fell far short of the 2007 OECD average of 40.8 percent.
The prolonged life expectancy, coupled with technological innovations and changes in economic and social conditions, will increase the need and demand for lifelong learning in the decades to come. The national statistics office forecasts that the average life expectancy of Koreans, which stood at 76 in 2000, will rise to 81.5 in 2020 and further to 83.1 in 2030. Some experts predict it will exceed 90 within two decades.
To turn the extended life into a blessing, not a calamity, the conventional life cycle, in which people usually work until their 50s based on the knowledge and skills acquired in their 20s and have little to do after their 60s, should be changed to a system that enables them to learn throughout their lives and work for as long as possible.
In this sense, it is regretful that no substantial measure to promote lifelong learning is included in the long to-do list drawn up by the president-elect and her staff to make people’s lives secure and happy. They should be reminded that lifelong education is essential for designing a happy life. As long as less than 1 percent of the nation’s educational budget is spent on lifelong learning ― the corresponding figure rises to 38 percent in Sweden, according to OECD data ― it can be hardly expected that happiness beckons to all Koreans any time soon.