Due to aging, South Korean population headed for structural reversal

Posted on : 2016-10-20 17:23 KST Modified on : 2019-10-19 20:29 KST
Data show productive population age group becoming smaller than the majority, and inadequate government preparation for slew of effects
Population of women aged 25-39 . Data: Statistics Korea
Population of women aged 25-39 . Data: Statistics Korea

Residents of Sinpyeong township in Uiseong County, North Gyeongsang Province, were getting ready for their autumn harvest on Oct. 12. Cutting rice plants was an urgent task, they said - and all of the work is done by local village women in their seventies and older.

“My job used to be to get the kids out if they crawled into the fields, but you don’t hear babies crying here these days,” said Kim Tae-bun, 74.

At 56 square kilometers Sinpyeong is about 18 times larger in area than Seoul's Yeouido neighborhood (2.9 square kilometers), but its 11 villages include not one obstetrician’s clinic, daycare center, or preschool. What it does have is 15 senior citizen centers.

“There’s exactly one elementary school student in our neighborhood [Jungnyul No. 1 village], but he doesn’t have any friends to play with, so he always follows us old women to the senior citizen center,” Kim said.

According to an index of “local community endangerment” for 3,482 townships and neighborhoods nationwide by researcher Lee Sang-ho of the Korea Employment Information Service, Sinpyeong was ranked as the community most likely to disappear in 30 years. Once a population is more than 7% people older than 65, it is classified an “aging society.” Over 14% indicates an “aged society,” while 20% or more indicates a “hyper-aged society.” In Sinpyeong‘s case, its 444 seniors account for well over half its total population - 811 registered residents as of July. The index in question represents the ratio of residents over 65 to the female population aged 20 to 39. A total of 1,383 townships and neighborhoods, or roughly one-third the total, fall in the “endangered” category.

Birthrate and number of births
Birthrate and number of births

South Korea now stands at the threshold of a major reversal in population structure. As of next year, it is set to become an “aged society,” with seniors accounting for 14% of its population. Next year is also poised to mark the first time the senior population exceeds the 14-and-under population - and the beginning of a decline in a productive population aged 15 to 64. The general population itself is expected to begin declining after 2030, but in terms of the three overlapping indexes, 2017 is shaping up to represent year one of this seismic shift in the population structure.

 people 65 and older ride for free. (file photo)
people 65 and older ride for free. (file photo)

During the 1960s and the birth of the baby boom generation, the population structure generally followed a pyramid distribution. Now it’s coming to resemble more of an urn, with an increase in the population aged 40 to 59. Soon it is set to change into an inverted-triangle urn, with people 60 and over accounting for a large percentage. The median age, representing the centermost if all of South Korea‘s residents were lined up by age, has risen from 21.8 years in 1980 to 41.2 last year.

Rising life expectancies are a worldwide trend. But in South Korea’s case, it is moving at a nearly unprecedented speed as the rate of the population’s aging combines with a severely low birth rate. If it does become a hyper-aged society on schedule in 2026, it will have taken just 26 years since first being classified as an aging society in 2000. It’s a process that is expected to take 70 years or more for other advanced economies like the US and France; even Japan took 36 years.

Elderly men walk through a subway station in Seoul. On Seoul’s transit system
Elderly men walk through a subway station in Seoul. On Seoul’s transit system

Between 2006 and 2015, the South Korean government invested 80 trillion won (US$71.3 billion) in measures to combat the low birth rate. But a rebound looks unlikely in a nation where the low rate has already become a chronic condition. Since 2001, South Korea has been unable to shed its hyper-low birth rate society status, with a total fertility rate below 1.3. It’s the reason many are saying the “department store model” of low birth rate response measures needs to be combined with basic preparations for the population structure shift to come.

“The changing population structure carries the risk of hampering economic growth and the balance of state and social insurance finances and leading to a decline in military manpower, a surplus of school facilities, and a faster hollowing out of farming communities,” said Paik Jong-man, a social welfare professor at Chonbuk National University.

“A hyper-aged society is about to become reality, but the government’s efforts to improve its social and economic constitution as the population structure shifts still appear inadequate,” Paik said.

By Hwangbo Yon, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]


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