▲ A common scene around the island: elders enjoying the day in the village meeting place, usually under a large tree. Photo by Kang Bong Soo
Jeju’s population is aging faster than that of the rest of the nation, a phenomenon that will have economic and social repercussions as an ever-dwindling number of working age people are required to cover the economic, social, and medical costs of retirees.
National statistics show that Korea’s population has increased from 45.8 million in 1995 to 50.5 million in 2010. However, corresponding figures show the number of 17 to 30 year-olds has been dropping in comparison with those aged over 65.
This trend, with its social and economic outcomes, is even more apparent on Jeju. In the same period, the island has seen a marked demographic shift with the number of those aged 20 to 24 years halved since 1995, while the number of those 65 and older has doubled.
According to Kim Jin Young, a Sociology professor at Jeju National University, when those 65 and over account for 7 percent or more of the nation’s population, the country has what is termed an aging society. If that demographic accounts for 14 percent it is considered an aged society, while if it reaches 20 percent, it is a post-aged society. Jeju was termed an aging society with 7.3 percent of the population 65 and over in 1998, two years before all of Korea reached 7.2 percent in 2000. It is anticipated that the province will be an aging society and a post-aged society in 2015 and 2025 respectively, at least two to three years earlier than the national average.
Prof. Kim Jin Young said this aging phenomenon is occurring in developed countries throughout the world, partly as a result of people having fewer children and partly because medical advances have allowed for people to live longer lives.
He added that, not only is Jeju following this trend, but is aging a year or two faster than the national average. This is despite the fact that Jeju’s birthrate at 1.3 children per woman is slightly higher than last year’s national average of 1.23. According to Prof. Kim Jin Young, this indicates that many of the island’s young people are moving elsewhere to study or for work.
But what does the rapidly aging population mean for the island?
Kim Jin Seon from the provincial department for the Welfare of the Elderly and Disabled, told The Weekly this phenomenon will put a lot of pressure on the dwindling working population to support the rising number of senior citizens. She said that this is not simply a personal problem but a social one. Prof. Kim Jin Young said that this situation could add pressure to the island’s social structure.
According to the Health Insurance Review & Assessment Service’s medical cost statistics from 2009 to 2011, the medical costs for people over 65 in Korea was 12 trillion won (US$ 10.4 billion won) in 2009, 13 trillion won in 2010, and 7 trillion won for the first half of 2011, which shows a constant increase of approximately 1 trillion won a year (US$1.1 billion).
“To solve this problem, we should encourage the birth of children,” said Prof. Kim Jin Young. “Also, we should create a social environment where women can cover their career and housework together. In developed countries which have a good social welfare system like Sweden, women’s economic activity rate is over 70 percent, [which is] different from Korea’s 50 percent.”
In an attempt to lessen the financial burden placed upon the working population by the large amount of people retiring in a short period of time, Prof. Kim Jin Young suggested that “We should think of how to offer jobs to able seniors. If they can work, they can not only receive an income to earn a living but [it will] reduce the[ir] social sense of isolation due to communication with others. There are many seniors who can still work.”
A report titled Survey for Solving Problems such as Low Birthrates commissioned by the Jeju Province in January 2011, shows that people on the island are becoming concerned with this trend. The survey reveals that 69.8 percent of those 20 and older agree that Jeju’s birthrate will not increase without government support. Almost half (46.7 percent) said the reason for the low birthrate was due to the burden of child rearing and education costs. As for province policies needed to increase the birthrate, 17.1 percent said the government should support maternity benefits, 15.2 percent said there should be more financial assistance for medical expenses, and 9.8 percent said there should be more free child care services.
As for government policies to prevent the problems of an aging society, 25.5 percent said the government needs to offer more jobs to seniors. Extending facilities for senior citizens was second with 21.8 percent.
The provincial government is trying to attack this problem with a number of initiatives.
The program Birthrate 2.0 Jeju Plan Stage 1 will be gradually implemented from now until 2014. Birthrate 2.0 attempts to tackle the costs of education and raising children by providing free lunches for kindergarten and elementary school students and through supporting childcare expenses for infants under five years of age. Also, to help working mothers, the number of kindergarten programs running at night will be expanded from 198 in 2010 to 250 by 2014.
Through the 2011 Businesses to Offer Jobs to Seniors program, around 2,500 seniors have gained employment. The jobs include walking students to and from school and assisting at banks. Those who received employment through the program work for 36 to 46 hours a month and receive about 200,000 won. The province has also been offering free care services to seniors 65 and older since 1998, and this year 363 seniors were entitled to this service. The program will be expanded with an additional service specializing in caring for seniors 100 years of age and older from 2012.
Clearly the aging population of Jeju has, and will, cause some economic and social disruption on the island. However, Jeju’s traditional respect for the elderly, the encouragement of their senior citizens to participate in useful economic activity, and a number of far-sighted government assistance packages, may help alleviate the harsher effects of an aging demographic.
In the words of 75-year-old Shin Hyeon Sang, who spoke to The Weekly after returning from his Chinese-language studies, “Aging is the order of nature. It is an inevitable phenomenon.”
ⓒ Jeju Weekly 2009 (http://www.jejuweekly.com)
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