The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Longevity not a blessing?


Published : Aug. 18, 2011 - 18:32

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In the old days, longevity was considered one of the five blessings in Korea, the other four being wealth, health, love of virtue and a peaceful death. Longevity was one of the most common themes in paintings and embroidery pieces, reflecting people’s wish for it.

Koreans’ view of longevity, however, seems to have changed. A recent survey conducted by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs found that 43 percent of Koreans felt living beyond the age of 90 or even 100 was not a blessing at all. Only 29 percent viewed longevity as a blessing, while 28 percent remained neutral.

According to the survey, some 60 percent of Koreans want to live to their 80s and 21 percent to their 70s. Only 16 percent want to live past 90, including the 8.2 percent who wish to become centenarians. Currently, the average life expectancy of Koreans stands at 80.

Why are so many Koreans far from enthusiastic about living beyond 90? It is because they abhor an excessively prolonged old age (38.3 percent), fear the problems that elderly people have to confront, such as poverty, illnesses and loneliness (30.6 percent), or do not want to become a burden for their children (24.1 percent).

The negative perception of life past 90 comes as a surprise as Korean society rapidly moves toward the era of centenarians ― an era defined as when the most common age at death surpasses 90. In Korea, the modal age at death was 85 in 2008 but is expected to top 90 around 2020.

Thus the centenarian era is approaching fast but the nation is hardly prepared for it. Adapting to the new era requires a comprehensive overhaul of the existing social security and labor market systems, including the pension, health care and retirement schemes, as they were basically designed for an era when people lived to their 70s or 80s at most.

But the Korean government has made little progress in undertaking the necessary policy and institutional reforms. Korea’s unpreparedness was well illustrated by a survey conducted last year by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. policy research institution.

The CSIS developed an index to assess the preparedness of major countries of the world in coping with population aging. Korea ranked 12th in terms of fiscal sustainability and 19th in income adequacy among the 20 surveyed countries. In particular, Korea was at the very bottom in terms of the percentage of the elderly living in poverty.

According to a recent OECD report, 45.1 percent of the elderly citizens in Korea were in poverty in 2009, the highest among OECD countries and more than triple the OECD average of 13.3 percent.

Older people generally have two main concerns ― good health and income security. When it comes to income support, Korea’s current social security system is not of much help to them. To address this problem, the government needs to expand the old-age pension program. But this could impose a serious fiscal burden on it.

A better way to deal with this problem is to expand work opportunities for elderly citizens. In this respect, it is important to get rid of the mandatory retirement age. Many advanced countries have already removed it not just because it is discrimination based on age but because it hinders economic growth.

According to the OECD, retiring older workers does not create jobs for young people. To argue otherwise is to fall into a trap called “the lump of labor fallacy” ― an erroneous belief that there are a fixed number of jobs to go around in an economy. Contrary to common sense, retiring productive older workers will actually result in an overall decrease in economic activity, which will in turn cause a drop in the total number of jobs in the economy.

If eliminating the mandatory retirement age is difficult if not impossible, the government needs to increase it to around 65. Most workers are willing to accept a cut in their salary if given an opportunity to work beyond their retirement age. Such an arrangement will benefit not only workers and employers but the government and the national economy. Furthermore, if financial security for older people improves, a larger proportion of Koreans will probably view longevity as a blessing.