Why the elderly don’t retire in Japan and South Korea

By Mu Guangzong Source:Global Times Published: 2018/7/8 18:38:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


Both Japan and South Korea are developed economies. They are also both deeply influenced by Confucian culture and traditions. People thus would naturally think that they should be countries where the elderly can enjoy their time. The truth is however different.

In China, one would find retired people dancing in public squares or taking care of their grandchildren. However, senior citizens in Japan and South Korea keep working. Japan has even drawn a plan to build a society that never retires.

Why are there more and more Japanese and Korean elder people who cannot relax in their silver years? On the one hand, the employment of the elderly stems from individual need, given that old-age pension often cannot meet the expenses of senior citizens and the lack of elderly support system in society makes it all the more necessary to have a job.

In South Korea, the average age of retirement for men is 71. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), some 70 percent of people aged 65 and above in South Korea can get "Basic Pension," the maximum benefit of which is about KRW 204,010 ($182) per month. This is even less than a third of the cost of ordinary people's living, making South Korea the country with the most serious problem of old age poverty among developed nations.

There is even a paradox - the longer you live, the easier it is for you to fall into the trap of relative poverty. According to OECD data, 48.6 percent of South Koreans over 65 years were poor (defined as earning 50 percent or less of median household income) in 2011. The population of people 65 and above crossed 14 percent in 2018, up from 12.8 percent in 2015. By 2065, it is expected to reach 42.5 percent.

Demography is another factor. A low birth rate has led to shortage of manpower. The number of young people is continuously declining. It is thus becoming increasingly necessary for the aged to return to the labor market. Take Japan where citizens aged 65 or above make up 26.7 percent of the population, according to The Guardian. In the construction industry, a third of the workers are at least 55 years old.

The phenomenon in Japan and South Korea, where people still work after retirement, revealed that a steady and balanced development of the population should be an important goal. Institutional retirement is based on age, functional retirement is based on ability. But whatever be the type of retirement, nobody can work forever. It is unrealistic to expect people over 80 or 90 to stick to their jobs.

The inversion of the population pyramid is a dangerous practice. On the one hand, working-age population is reducing, on the other, the number of the elderly is rising. This may lead to many social problems. Boosting fertility rate should hence become a historical mission of any population strategy in these times.

The aging societies of Japan and South Korea show that mankind is entering an era of functional retirement, which means that the elderly will be no longer defined by their age, but their ability.

There is a positive side to people working in old age: it helps eliminate age discrimination. However, the pressure on the elderly at a vulnerable age can't be denied.

China is no exception to the trend. Over the past few years, the increasing number of senior migrant workers and a continuous decline in the working-age population are indications. The guarantee of a decent living standard to the elderly should be one of the top priorities of the country.

The author is professor at the Institute of Population Research, Peking University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

Newspaper headline: Why the elderly don’t retire in Japan and SK


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