OPINION

[Editorial] Age-quake

By Korea Herald

Comprehensive strategy needed to curb aging

  • Published : Oct 2, 2017 - 15:56
  • Updated : Oct 2, 2017 - 15:56

Age-quake is a term coined by Paul Willis, a British scholar of population. It refers to the earthquake-like phenomenon of the world shaking due to the impact from a change in population structure due to societal aging.

Willis emphasized the seismic power of age-quake and predicted that the world economy would shake from its root by the age-quake in 2020 when the baby boom generation starts to retire.

Ominously enough, he put forward Korea as a country that would suffer first. It is uncomfortable to admit it, but he seems to have made a correct prediction.

There is no doubt that like Japan, Korea is one of the world’s fastest-aging societies. The latest figures show that the country officially entered an aged society in August this year, and it is rushing toward a super-aged society.

Statistics Korea said that in August this year, the number of people aged 65 or older accounted for 14.02 percent of the total population, which stands at nearly 52 million. The government had expected Korea, which became an aging society -- whose elderly population exceeds 7 percent of the total population -- 17 years ago, to reach 14 percent next year.

As a consequence of the faster-than-expected aging, the number of people aged 65 or older exceeded the number of those aged 14 or younger for the first time in September.

Officials say Korea will be a super-aged society -- whose elderly population rate is 20 percent or higher -- in 2026, but a considerable number of areas already exceed the level.

The phenomenon is more evident in rural areas. For instance, South Jeolla Province, with an elderly population rate of 21.4 percent, is the oldest among major provinces. Over 20 percent of the 93 administrative districts of shi, gun, gu -- mostly in farming and fisheries areas -- have already become super-aged societies.

In some rural areas, the percentage is heading toward 40 percent, with Goheung in South Jeolla Province registering 38.1 percent and Uiseong in North Gyeongsang Province 37.7 percent.

The gravity of the situation is supported by other indexes. Statistics Korea’s aging index for farming areas is about three times higher than the national average. The average age of farm owners was 66.3 in 2016.

As we see, the result is prevalent of poverty -- Korea has one of the highest elderly poverty rates in the world -- as well as illness and loneliness among elderly people living in rural areas. This requires prompt government attention to policy programs to expand the social safety net and revitalize the economy in rural areas.

Overall, Korea needs a comprehensive set of approaches and programs to cope with the fast-aging society, including fiscal, welfare, healthcare and labor policies. But, as Korea became an aged society one year earlier than expected, government efforts have made little progress in coping with an aged society.

Jobs policy is one good example. Politicians and officials still tend to overlook the aging factor when they discuss employment and reform of the labor market. They are too focused on young people.

It is the same with the Moon Jae-in administration, which has been engrossed in issues like addressing the problems of contingent workers, increasing public sector jobs for young people, providing a stipend for young job seekers and reducing legal working hours.

It is not wrong for the government to strive to address polarization of the labor market and tackle the serious youth unemployment problem, but Korea certainly lacks comprehensive and effective programs to provide jobs for the elderly.

Despite the scientific advancement mankind has achieved so far, it is still difficult to predict earthquakes. In contrast, the age-quake is predictable, which commands the government to take measures to prevent otherwise seismic damage to the society.