Ageism Is a Growing Problem for Korea

  • By Kim Sung-mo

    November 12, 2021 08:42

    Ageism is worsening around the globe, and the social and economic costs are particularly steep for Korea as its population is getting older.

    The World Health Organization in a report in March called for urgent action to deal with ageism described as "an insidious scourge on society." The global body said ageism "leads to poorer health, social isolation, earlier deaths and cost economies billions."

    The economic cost of ageism is a particular challenge for Korea, because its population of senior citizens is expected to surpass 10 million or 20 percent of the population by 2025.

    Age-related bias often judges the elderly solely on their contribution to productivity, pitting generations against each other and underestimating the ability of senior citizens to contribute to society.

    According to a study by the National Human Rights Commission of Korea in 2017, 21 percent of senior citizens said they encountered prejudice due to their age. Nearly all elderly people feel that laws against age discrimination are needed, according to another survey by the NHRC last year.

    Earlier this week, a coalition of activists protested in front of the National Assembly demanding that a pending anti-discrimination bill be finally passed within this year's parliamentary session.

    The latest bill, which was introduced in June, bans direct and indirect discrimination based on gender, disability, medical history, age, origin, ethnicity, race, skin color, physical condition, marital status, sexual orientation and gender identity. Similar bills have regularly foundered on opposition from conservative and religious groups and never made it to the final stage, but sentiment appears to be changing.

    Age discrimination is pervasive in many walks of life. One example is building security, which is often a lifeline for elderly men. A look at postings on job portal Saramin found that many recruiters do not even consider applicants over 50. One apartment complex in Mapo, Seoul that recently recruited new security guards set the age limit at 45. When contacted, the management agency said residents prefer younger security guards.

    The coronavirus pandemic has also pushed many elderly people to the end of the line at medical facilities as resources were limited. One doctor at a university hospital said, "When there were a lot of elderly patients, we felt less pressured to treat them because they were already weak due to old age. But during the recent surge of infections among younger people we tended to feel more pressured and pay more attention." That suggests even doctors feel it is necessary to save younger people first.

    Elderly people also seem to have found it difficult to get treatment for chronic or age-related illnesses in the pandemic as they were confined in their homes for fear of COVID-19 infection and neglected other health issues.

    "The pandemic has put into stark relief the vulnerabilities of older people, especially those most marginalized, who often face overlapping discrimination and barriers -- because they are poor, live with disabilities, are women living alone, or belong to minority groups," said Natalia Kanem of the UN Population Fund.

    "Let's make this crisis a turning point in the way we see, treat and respond to older people, so that together we can build the world of health, well-being and dignity for all ages that we all want."

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