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[Lee Jae-min] Unique problem of graying Korea

In traditional Korea, the age 60 marked an important occasion. It is the year when one’s life makes a full circle according to the sexagenary (60-year) cycle of the lunar calendar. It was the point in time when one was considered to have lived a healthy and long life, so it was certainly a time for a big celebration among family members and also a memorable festivity for the entire village.

However, 60 years old is now considered young in today’s Korea, as the country’s average life expectancy has risen dramatically over the years, reaching mid-80s and counting. Nowadays in Korea, a man “officially” becomes elderly at the age of 65: a special card is issued by the government, subway rides become free and elderly pension is provided.

Sixty-five is also the standard adopted by the international community. The UN officially defines a society as an “ageing society” when the population of people 65 and older accounts for 7 percent of the total population. The society becomes an “aged society” when the percentage reaches 14 percent. It then turns into a “super-aged” one if the number rises to 20 percent.

Here is how Korea is doing. Korea passed the first two marks in 2000 and 2017, respectively. This 17-year run is the fastest in this category. The previous record was Japan’s 24 years (1970-1994). Statistics predict that Korea will reach the final mark of 20 percent in 2025. And of course the number will continue to rise afterward. It was just 5 percent in 1990. By any account, Korea is aging and aging very fast.

Rapid aging’s social problems are well-known: weakening economic vitality, a dwindling workforce and intergenerational tension over jobs, just to name a few. Rising health care costs, increasing medical expenditures and a drying national pension fund -- you bet. Mind you these problems of a greying society are not just Korea’s. Many other countries are also experiencing rapid demographic changes in the same direction. But there is one unique problem for Korea: elderly poverty.

Korea’s elderly poverty rate -- those who live with less than half of the national household median income -- stands at 49 percent, the highest among 34 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. This means half of us are going to end up living in poverty when we reach 65 and above. Sadly, some say this widespread poverty is one of the main reasons for another category in which Korea marks the highest in OECD statistics: the elderly suicide rate.

Long gone is the traditional Korean virtue of fulfilling the filial duty to support parents financially and emotionally. As the holiday season nears, we will soon see charity drives for the underprivileged. Those charity drives and related media reports feature the perilously inhumane living conditions of poor senior citizens who live in solitude. Some of them make a living by collecting cardboard on the streets. You may see fragile elderly men and women pulling small carts full of cardboard.

Each December, I used to accompany students in my school when they carry out charity in winter. We bought and delivered coal briquettes to the elderly who live in poverty around the campus. Their small homes are clustered along narrow alleyways where one person can barely walk through. These briquettes are an absolute minimum that can warm them during the cold winter. Elderly poverty is widespread in our own neighborhood.

Experts warn that today’s working generation in Korea will face harsher poverty in their retirement years. Parents are spending a significant portion of their earnings on their children’s education at private teaching institutions and on private tutoring. Caught up in spending on their children, most middle-class parents do not have the luxury of worrying about their lives after 65.

By the time parents retire, their savings may well have dried up. It again tells us that Korea’s chronic private education problem lies at the core of many other social challenges, present and future. The national college entrance exam falls on Thursday. Before and after the exam, parents will again line up at (well-known) private teaching institutions. 

By Lee Jae-min

Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.