Aging and Immigration: The Case of South Korea (with a Look at Italy and Japan)

Article excerpt

Many nations of the world are experi- encing rapid aging and simultaneously seeing low fertility rates. The com- mon challenge they face is how to sustain an ade- quate workforce to main- tain economic growth, especially in light of the growing retirement and healthcare needs of an aging society. Various countries use pronatal policies, such as child allowances and family subsidies, to encourage women to have more children, with modest effect. Instead, increasing the working popula- tion through recruitment of foreign workers and immigration has been recognized as the most viable policy option- albeit one that has proven to be problematic, both politically and culturally. Asian countries in particular have unique cultures and traditions. Most of Asia has seen a significant decline in fertility and mortal- ity rates. As an Asian country that maintains one of the lowest total fertility rates (1.08 in 2006) in the world (Korea National Statistical Office, 2007), South Korea can provide an important example of how an aging society utilizes and addresses immigrants in general and foreign workers specifically. In particular, South Korea represents a good case of the tensions that con- front most aging societies that must reconcile economic and demo- graphic imperatives for immigration with deeply ingrained desires to main- tain their unique cultures. This article examines the situation in South Korea, and parallels in Italy and Japan, as a way of under- standing how other countries can address the nexus of aging, diversity, and immigration.


South Korea's demographic transition has been defined by a rapid decline in fertility rates and a gradual decrease in mortality rates. From a high total fertility rate of five to six children per woman during the early 1950s, following the Korean War, the country's rate has dropped to a little over one child per woman today. Combined with improvements in public health and hygiene (which lowered the death rate from about 35 per 100,000 in 1910 to 17 in 1950 to 1955), life expectancy at birth extended from 23 years in 1905 to 1910 to about 50 years in 1950 to 1955 (Phang, 2005). Add into that the aging of the eight million South Koreans born in the baby boom generation of the 1950s, and the population of South Korea now finds itself rapidly aging. The proportion of the population over age 65 was about 8 percent in 2007, but it is estimated that the portion will grow to 10.7 percent by 2020, to 22.5 percent by 2030, and to 34.4 percent by 2050 (Kwon, 2008). As it did during its fertility transition in the second half of the twentieth century, South Korean society will continue to face issues of a completely developed country- that is, a growing aging population and a decreasing labor force (Phang, 2005). How will South Korea address the policy questions that arise from this demographic phenomenon.


The change in South Korea's population has created a wide array of social challenges related to the decreasing labor force and increasing elder population. Among these are increased instability of incomes and the generational tension conoerning expansion of social services and government spending (Korea Development Institute et al., 2005). What is more, the impact of population changes on the economy and industry in South Korea now are all the more striking because Korea achieved its economic growth over a relatively short period of time, through its use of human resources (Kim, 2000).

The economically "productive" portion of the South Korean population (defined as those ages 16 to 64) was more than 50 percent of the total during the early stages of economic development in the 1960s and began to increase during the early 1970s, reaching more than 70 percent in 2000. As noted above, this increase was possible because of the high fertility rate from 1950 to 1960 that produced the large baby boom generation and also because that generation's successive offspring cohorts were correspondingly large in number, even though the total fertility rate had already begun to drop by the time they reached their own reproductive years. …