Ageing population in South Korea

Earlier this year, scientists predicted that women born in South Korea in 2030 will live, on average, until they are 90, thereby over-taking Japan in terms of female life expectancy.

Basic demographic indicators

Age structure
% of the population
0-14 years 13.45%
15-24 years 13.08%
25-54 years 45.93%
55-64 years 14.01%
65 years + 13.53%
Median age 41.2 years
Crude birth rate 8.4%
Crude death rate 5.8%
Life expectancy 82.4 years (female 85.8 years, male 79.3 years)

(Source CIA World Factbook)

The study suggests that South Koreans will experience the greatest rise in life expectancy in the industrialised world, with women adding 6.6 years to their average lifespan by 2030 compared with 2010. For South Korean men, life expectancy is predicted to rise to 84 years.

However, this rise in life expectancy is not without problems. According to the OECD, almost half of South Korea’s population aged over 65 now live in relative poverty. In 2011, 48.6% of South Korea’s elderly were living in relative poverty (defined as earning 50% or less of median household income), the highest level among the 34 OECD countries.

One in four of the elderly live alone, and high levels of isolation and depression have led to an increase in elderly suicide, from 34 per 100,000 people in 2000 to 72 in 2010.

At Tapgol Park in Seoul, a Buddhist temple provides free lunches – the number receiving free lunches has increased from 140 per day to over 200.

Part of the reason for their plight may be the cost of supporting their own offspring. When they were still working, many elderly people spent too much on their children’s education and put little aside for their own retirement. Unable to find work, many have little to fall back on.

The traditional expectation that children will look after their parents in old age has stifled the emergence of a welfare state able to cope with South Korea’s rapidly ageing society. Far fewer old people in South Korea live with their married children than in Japan, for example. And the increasing polarisation of South Korean society means it is getting harder for adult children to support their parents financially.”

The financial plight of older South Koreans emerged as a key issue in May’s presidential election, which was won by the former human rights lawyer, Moon Jae-in. Moon has made welfare reform a priority. He has pledged to raise the basic pension from just over 200,000 won (£138) to 300,000 won (£210) per month, and to double the number of job openings for older workers to 800,000, coupled with significant monthly wage increases. He also plans to subsidise the treatment of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, make more money available for caregivers, and increase social housing provision for elderly people.

Like Japan, South Korea is expected to undergo rapid demographic change in the coming decades – with the proportion of over-65s predicted to increase dramatically to 40% of the population by 2060, compared to 13% today.

There are also lifestyle factors that have contributed to high life expectancy in South Korea. Those over 65 years old today belong to a generation with very low obesity prevalence – one of the lowest worldwide – and low levels of smoking. These are two predominant factors behind the low cardiovascular disease rates in this age group, which are lower than in western countries with high life expectancy levels, such as Switzerland, Australia and New Zealand.”

Certainly, South Korean citizens have not benefited equally from decades of economic development. But comprehensive and affordable healthcare has enabled older people to remain healthy, even on comparatively low pensions.

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