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[News Focus] Korea overtakes 20 countries in life expectancy for 20 years

SEJONG -- Japan is the world’s leading “aged society,” according to the United Nation’s standards, with its number of citizens aged 70 or above accounting for more than 20 percent of its population.

South Korea is following suit. Those 70 years old or above surpassed 10 percent of the population, or 5.31 million of the total 51.83 million as of March 2019.
(Graphic by Heo Tae-seong/The Korea Herald)
(Graphic by Heo Tae-seong/The Korea Herald)

As of 2000, life expectancy at birth for Japanese born between 1995 and 2000 was 80.5 years, according to an estimate by the United Nations. This was the highest in the world, exceeding corresponding figures for Greece (78.1), the Netherlands (77.8 years), Cyprus (77.7), New Zealand (77.6), Austria (77.5), Malta (77.5), Belgium (77.4), Germany (77.3), the UK (77.2), Finland (77.1), Luxembourg (77) and Costa Rica (77).

The next group of high rankers were the US (76.5), Cuba (76.2), Chile (76.1), Denmark (76.1), Qatar (76), Portugal (76), Ireland (76) and Slovenia (75.3).

In 2000, South Korea ranked behind the abovementioned 20 countries and far behind Japan, with life expectancy at 74.9 years. But this has jumped in the past two decades.

For the 2020 projection, for those born between 2015 and 2020, life expectancy for Koreans stands at 82.4 years, overtaking all of the 20 countries. The corresponding UN estimates for the US, Germany and the UK stood at 79.6, 81.3 and 81.8 years respectively. North Korea and China posted 71.9 and 76.5 years respectively.

In the top three were Hong Kong (84.2), Japan (84) and Macau (84). South Korea ranked 14th alongside Norway (82.4).

South Korea is expected to overtake France (10th as of 2020), Sweden (11th), Israel (11th) and Canada (13th) by 2040, and to further surpass Italy (sixth as of 2020), Australia (eighth) and Iceland (ninth) by 2060, according to its forecast. Furthermore, its global ranking could rise from the current 14th to 10th in two decades, and by eight notches to sixth in four decades.

South Korea will likely see its citizens’ average lifespan reach 89.1 years in 2065, when Hong Kong is projected to post 90.5, Macau 90.4, Japan 89.8, Singapore 89.4, Switzerland 89.2 and Spain 89.1.

“Should the figures for Hong Kong and Macau be absorbed into that of China, Korea’s ranking would be as high as fourth in the world from 2060,” said a population research analyst in Yeouido, Seoul.

He raised the urgent need for the government to prepare for an aged society, such as by benchmarking the pension systems of advanced countries.

Meanwhile, a research fellow from the Korea Development Institute called on the government to increase employment among seniors. “The elderly’s active participation in the labor market will ease the social burden of supporting senior people, which could be the most effective tool to resolve woes,” he said.
The Ministry of Employment and Labor introduces a group of fashion models in their 50s on its official blog, as part of its effort to promote job creation for seniors. (Employment Ministry)
The Ministry of Employment and Labor introduces a group of fashion models in their 50s on its official blog, as part of its effort to promote job creation for seniors. (Employment Ministry)

The UN, in its report, said the gap in life expectancy at birth between the least developed countries and developing countries narrowed from 11 years in 2000-2005 to eight years in 2010-2015. “Although differences in life expectancy across regions and income groups are projected to persist in future years, such differences are expected to diminish significantly by 2045-2050,” it said.

It also said that “the increased level and reduced variability in life expectancy have been due to many factors, including a lower under-five mortality rate, which fell by more than 30 percent in 89 countries between 2000-2005 and 2010-2015.”

Other factors include the continued reduction in fatalities due to HIV-AIDS and progress in combating other infectious and non-communicable diseases.

According to the Ministry of Interior and Safety, the number of South Koreans aged 100 or above came to 19,323 (4,542 men and 14,781 women) as of March 2019. It marked 678 percent growth in a decade, compared to 2,483 individuals in March 2009.

By region, Seoul topped the list with 5,961 centenarians last month despite having a smaller population than Gyeonggi Province, which had 3,735 residents aged 100 or over.

Busan ranked third with 1,709 centenarians, followed by North Gyeongsang Province with 886, Incheon with 848, South Chungcheong Province with 810 and South Jeolla Province with 787.

By Kim Yon-se (