When I first arrived in Korea, I was shocked by how many ahjusshis (old men) and ahjummas (old women) I saw. They were all perfectly healthy, outpacing me ( a 20 years old girl ) on treks all over the hilly cities of Korea. However, while there were fit elderly people everywhere, I rarely saw newborn babies or toddlers. It was strikingly weird to me because while going about my daily life I see babies every day in Vietnam. This leads me to the question, why is Korea’s population aging?
People Live Longer
According to Statista, in 2021, the elderly population accounted for approximately 16.5 percent of the total population in South Korea. This is about 0.8 percent higher than in the previous year, this share has been increasing continuously since 2010.
For comparison, that is more than double Vietnam! The percentage of the population over 65 in my home country is only 7.9 percent.
According to the report by Statistics Korea, the number of people aged 65 and older stood at 8.53 million in 2021 and the number is increasing. The graying of South Korea is only expected to accelerate exponentially, with the number of elderly people rising to 12.98 million in 2030 and 17.22 million in 2040.
By 2050, those over 65 could account for 43.9 percent of the country’s population.
A number of factors contribute to Koreans living a long and healthy life. I have experienced firsthand the wonders of the Korean medical system and the culture around receiving care.
Koreans are quick to seek medical help as soon as they experience any discomfort. They don’t really waste time with home remedies, and there isn’t such thing as over-the-counter medicine. For anything from hangovers to headaches, people go to the hospital and receive prescription medicine. Services are quick, convenient, and affordable.
Plus, the Korean medical system starts by eliminating the worst possibilities first and is overly precautions. You really don’t see people living for years suffering from illnesses as you might in other countries.
People Don’t Have Kids
While Koreans obviously live long due to access to top-notch medical care and a healthy lifestyle, another huge factor in Korea’s aging population is the lack of births.
In 2021, South Korea’s fertility rate dropped to a historic low. The latest figure, representative of the number of children a woman is expected to give birth to in her lifetime, dropped to 0.81. South Korea is the only country in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) with a fertility rate lower than 1, and it is exceptionally low compared to the 2nd lowest figure, Japan’s 2020 rate of 1.34.
Due to the rapidly declining birthrate, South Korea’s population took a downward turn for the first time in 2020. In 2021, the population fell by about 57,300 from the previous year.
According to the report, people are marrying later in life and on average are waiting longer to have children. While many are abandoning the idea of having children altogether.
There is a trend all over the world in which women are reassessing their priorities. More and more women are choosing to focus on their education, careers, and self-development in their 20s rather than establishing a family.
However, while women want to put creating a family on hold, there is a biological factor that may not allow them to. While many women can give birth with ease even into their 50s, many also struggle with fertility issues as they age.
This has put a halt to the birth rate and significantly contributes to the aging population in Korea.
It is too expensive to have kids
In addition, there is a huge financial factor in the choice not to have kids. Korea does have one of the highest gender pay gaps in the world and women who become pregnant or have children often feel the impact on their salaries.
Even though a baby is a blessing, it’s just simply too expensive for many married couples to have kids. There is a lot of pressure on parents to keep their children competitive. Society expects them to force their children to study for long hours under the supervision of private tutors.
There are fundamental societal problems such as grueling competition during school entrance exams, the difficulty of finding employment, and the high number of people looking to take up residency in Seoul to work at a major company. All of which, make parents unable to see a bright future for their children.
Another big factor is space. The average person living in a major city cannot afford the space to raise a family. The house price for a family in Korea is ridiculously expensive. In fact, South Korea has the 9th highest housing cost to income ratio in the world.
The reason behind the unimaginably expensive price of housing in Korea is the lack of land. About 60 to 70 percent of Korea is uninhabitable land, consisting mostly of steep mountains. Therefore, in reality, there is not much space left for housing. As a result, Korea decided to expand the country vertically. But, it is very difficult to raise a kid in an apartment as neighbors usually aren’t too happy about babies crying all night or toddlers thumping on their roof.
The Consequences of an Aging Population
The biggest concerns with a rapidly aging population are financial. The elderly generally don’t work, aren’t big spenders, and require a lot of support. The level at which Korea’s population is aging isn’t something that has ever been recorded before, but it is predicted to bring the country on the brink of financial ruin.
The rapid aging of populations is expected to result in: shifting disease burden, increased expenditure on health and long-term care, labor-force shortages, dissaving, and potential problems with old-age income security.
While the future of Korea with regard to its aging population is pretty grim, there is one obvious solution. South Korea needs to increase the number of immigrants. With the population aging, and no young people to fill essential jobs competent foreign workers are needed to fill the gaps.
Actually, this year (2022) South Korea will be exponentially increasing the number of migrant laborers. The decision was based on the aging population crisis. And, in the future, we are likely to see more and more foreign workers flocking to Korea.
If you want to learn more about social and political issues in Korea, Click Here. Read all about foreigners’ reactions to the 2022 Korean presidential election.