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[Korean Dilemma] Bracing for super-aging society

Population decline can't be all bad; just avoid the worst by helping parents relax a little

By Kim So-hyun

Published : March 11, 2023 - 16:01

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Imagine 2050.

Two out of five people in South Korea will be aged 65 or above.

You will see more older people on self-driving buses and trains, although they may look much younger than those of their age now. More young people will be engaged in businesses that serve the old, like health care, clubs and cruise ships.

Yet, the government and media are tormented by the notion that there will be too few young people to support the old.

In a country where so many social problems stem from cutthroat competition for everything from securing concert tickets to getting into college, plus rage due to chronic road congestion, a population decline can’t be all bad.

The national pension system is headed for a disaster, but that’s a problem the pension operator should figure out by becoming a better investor.

People worry about the shrinking working age population further slowing economic growth, but by 2050, the workforce should include more people aged over 65 and women to alleviate the projected "demographic cliff."

The retirement age can and should be extended to allow people to work as long as they are healthy, and the demarcation line for "seniors" may also be moved up from the current 65 to 75 or so.

In 27 years, Korea is likely to be further ahead in the ranks of advanced nations – unless our leaders do something very wrong – and developed economies usually do not grow much anyways.

AI robots will be handling much of the boring or labor-intensive work so we can focus on creative tasks, which means productivity will be defined and measured in new ways.

Perturbed about having fewer youth to defend us from North Korea? North Koreans are having less kids too. And national defense in the future will be more about technology and strategy, and less about the headcount.

Above all, like climate change, an aging society is a path that cannot be diverged from.

We should then think about how to avoid the worst – an unforeseen, steep decline -- and how to make the best out of what's coming.

Since the industrial landscape will transform to meet the needs of an aging society by achieving synergy between robots and human creativity, I don’t think Koreans will ever go extinct, as some people worry. Rather, a less densely populated environment will mitigate competition and give people more breathing space to be creative.

And to avoid the worst, we should accurately identify the causes of declining childbirths: Fewer Koreans are getting married in the first place; out-of-wedlock births aren’t rising largely due to social stigma; and a significant share of couples fear raising kids “just like everyone else” would be too costly.

As for the cost factor, unless the government throws out irresistibly sizable grants -- tens of millions of won per child, which would be a precarious national gamble – a few million won won’t change people’s minds, as several local administrations have shown.

The only thing that would work is making the country feel like a good place to raise children.

South Korea is already relatively safe, so it comes down to expanding public role in child-rearing and education to spare parents time and energy, and reduce the peer pressure to keep up with the Joneses -- or the Kims.

Young women are hesitant to have kids because they hear mothers moan about how hard it is to juggle a career, kids and housework, and how much people are spending on kids’ education since they grew up “adjusting to reality,” thinking one’s own views aren’t important.

But ask any parent what is the best thing that happened to him or her – it’s undoubtedly the birth of their offspring.

Children don’t really care about expensive things unless their parents do. And ideally, they should grow up alongside less jittery adults.

The government can do a number of things to help more of us be those relaxed parents: expand free public nurseries for children up to the age of 2 (the prefecture of Tokyo plans to make them free for second-born children from October); extend elementary school hours to 3 p.m.; run school cafeterias for dinner too (the users should pay); and revise the college admissions system so kids can learn skills that they will actually use more in life.

Unionized workers in public education could again get in the way, but this is the least the government can do for future generations. We need leaders who can effectively articulate the causes and persuade the majority to weaken selfish demands.

The number of marriages has continued to decline from its peak of about 435,000 in 1996 to around 192,000 last year, the lowest ever. A recent poll showed that only 4 percent of women aged 20 to 34 and 12.9 percent of the men in the same group believe marriage and childbirth are “a must.”

This means that over 90 percent of young women are OK with staying unmarried.

Young people do not believe in the institution of marriage anymore, and like climate change, this is another thing we can't turn around.

France raised its fertility rate to over 2 children on average within the lifetime of a woman -- Korea stands at its lowest ever 0.79 -- by offering the same legal benefits to children born to both married and unmarried couples. Korea should think about going in that direction.