How old is old? In South Korea, there is one simple measure. If you turn 65, you are officially identified as a senior citizen and are eligible for free subway rides.
But the age of 65 that delimits “old age” here might be raised to 70 in the near future, something that could force many poverty-stricken elderly people to stay home.
More important, raising the eligibility age for free subway rides involves more than the perception of older adults in Korea. It is a complex matter linked with broader social and welfare issues that range from the country’s lack of social safety net, fast-paced aging and exacerbating poverty of the elderly.
The discussion on the definition of old age was sparked by the city governments of Seoul and Daegu. The city of Daegu recently announced that it was considering whether to raise the age of eligibility for free subway rides from 65 to 70. And the Seoul Metropolitan Government, which runs an extensive network of subways, said it would adjust the age, unless the central government pays for the snowballing costs of giving free rides to senior citizens.
Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon recently unveiled a plan to raise subway and bus fares by as much as 400 won ($0.32) in April, the first hike since June 2015, claiming that the Finance Ministry refused to provide financial support for the free ride policy for seniors last year. According to the city-funded Seoul Metro, raising the eligible age to 70 would result in a reduction in losses of around 152.4 billion won.
The origin of the policy of letting seniors ride the subway for free dates back to Parents’ Day on May 8 in 1980, when a 50 percent discount was offered to those aged 70 and older. In 1984, subway rides for older people became free of charge. Under the Welfare of Senior Citizens Act, the central government and local administrations can allow those aged 65 and older to use public transits, palaces, museums and parks free of charge or at a discount.
The dispute over the eligible age for older adults, which started from the chronic losses of the subway operators, is now expanding to other related social systems, notably the national pension threatened by a complete depletion by 2055 and the extension of the retirement age.
In theory, by raising the age of eligibility for senior citizens, the government and local administrations can buy time to deal with their worsening welfare-related budget problems, shore up the embattled national pension system, at least temporarily, and help accelerate debates on the postponement of the retirement age in connection with the rapid aging in Korean society.
As medical science and living conditions improve in general, life expectancy is on the rise across the world. South Korea is no exception. According to Statistics Korea, boys and girls born in 2021 are expected to live 80.6 years and 86.6 years, respectively, exceeding the average of the 38 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But the mix of a longer life expectancy and a record low birth rate here is translating to a continued increase in the ratio of older adults. The population of the elderly jumped from 1.49 million in 1981 to 9.5 million in 2023. After becoming an aged society in 2017, Korea is now set to become a super-aged society in 2025, with the percentage of the elderly topping 20 percent.
Given that the life expectancy is set to rise further in the coming years, it seems difficult to reach a consensus on a single numerical age of transition to the elderly who are qualified to receive social and welfare benefits.
As for exploring the age limit for the elderly, policymakers and city administrations are urged to consider not only cost problems but other related factors such as the high senior poverty rate.