A group of foreign business leaders discussed with Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon how to deal with Seoul’s low birth rate and aging society at the 2014 meeting of the Seoul International Business Advisory Council on Friday.
A total of 21 experts, including Richard Smith, the president of the Pinkerton Foundation and Christopher Forbes, the vice chairman of American business magazine Forbes, spoke about issues related to Seoul’s aging society, including work and life balance, immigration policies, and the city’s ambitious project to establish the Hongreung Smart Aging Center, a research complex in Seoul to study and support the elderly population.
“Many say the aging society is a crisis,” Mayor Park said about the research complex, which he envisions to be an “innovative biomedical cluster” that also offers leisure and entertainment activities as well as educational programs.
“But we think this also can be a great opportunity for (a lot of businesses and research) and Seoul can set up a great example for the world (in terms of dealing with the aging society) and where all the related research happens.”
Dominic Barton, the global managing director of McKinsey & Company and the chairman of the SIBAC, said creating the complex was a great idea.
He suggested attracting global players and private sector firms to the business opportunities related to aging society in Seoul.
“I think the core is health care. That’s where a lot of the (business) opportunities will be. There may be opportunities as well on the education and entertainment side to look at. … Make sure it’s not just domestic, it’s global,” he said. “Seoul is the most aging city we have on the planet.”
Meanwhile, Richard Smith, president of the Pinkerton Foundation, commented on the subject of immigration and Seoul’s challenges in using migrant workers for economic growth.
“Since I suspect that the birth rate is not going to dramatically turn around, that brings us back to the subject of immigration. I know you are proud of the increasing number of foreigners who live here,” he said.
“But there is a difference between having an increased number of foreigners and being a place that is known as a welcoming to innovative contributors who are going to really play a part of the economic and social part of this country. And I think in the long term that may be the biggest challenge facing Seoul.”
Marjorie Yang, the chairwoman of the Esquel Group, a cotton shirt-maker based in Hong Kong, spoke about the relationship between fertility rate and women’s work and life balance. “Fertility rates are very low in East Asian and some southern European countries which still emphasize the traditional role of women as housewives and have a highly homogeneous ethnic structure,” she wrote in her prepared text for the meeting.
“Most governments care about creating a ‘child-friendly’ society, but not all of them are very conscious about removing the hidden barriers which are not very friendly for working mothers. Korea’s homogenous society may challenge Seoul’s efforts to attract talents from other regions and change social perceptions about gender equality.”
Almost half of South Korea’s total population will be 65 or older by 2100 at the current birth rate of 1.19, according to a state-run research agency. Senior citizens will account for 39.4 percent of population by 2050 and 48.2 percent by 2100.
Launched in 2001, SIBAC is the forum of global business leaders to advise the Seoul mayor on various economic, social and cultural policy issues.