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How to help our elderly

May 09,2019
Gloomy data weighed over May 8, the day Koreans celebrate as “Parents’ Day.” Korea’s elderly are suffering the most economically among those in the same age group in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to its “Society at a Glance 2019” report — a biennial study on social and welfare issues — Korean men retire from the labor market at the age of 72.9 and women at 73.1. French men and women are liberated from labor at 60.5 and 60.6, respectively. Koreans must work nearly 10 years more than the OECD average of 65.3 for men and 63.6 for women. The data won’t pose a problem if Koreans voluntarily work longer.

Yet the reality is the opposite. According to a study by Statistics Korea, more than half — 58.2 percent — of the elderly wish to live more comfortably, yet 61.8 percent should work to make a living. In the past, they lived with their children. But now, 72.4 percent of the elderly are on their own. Just 25.7 percent of them get financial aid from their children or relatives. Less than half — 45.6 percent — are eligible for a monthly pension. Yet social security and welfare offer little comfort. Korea’s elderly inevitably have to find other means to support themselves.

Even though they work most of their life, they live in poverty. Because their work is restricted to unskilled and low-paying jobs — 24.4 percent — the poverty rate of people aged 65 and above is 45.7 percent, the world’s highest. It is much higher than the OECD average of 13.5 percent. Koreans also top the OECD ranking of the suicide rate among the elderly with 54.8 out of 100,000 taking their own lives.

There is little sign of relief as Korean society heads toward a demographic cliff. Korea’s life expectancy is expected to reach 85.2 for men and 88.6 for women soon. Yet the total fertility rate hovers at a mere 0.98 for a couple. Living longer could be more of a curse than a blessing. Welfare costs will increase due to the growing aging population. Korea is set for the same no-growth path as Japan. There must be more prudence on welfare spending.

Lessons can be learned from Japan’s experience. Japan formed a government-private convention in 2017 to discuss measures for a society of centenarians. It invited scholars to address its thinning population and challenges from technological advances. Instead of handing out cash allowances, the government must embark on comprehensive work for a rapidly aging society.

JoongAng Ilbo, May 8, Page 30