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Debate on 'no-seniors zones' heats up

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : May 16, 2024 - 15:35

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A public pool with eight 50-meter lanes at Jecheon Sports Training Center in North Chungcheong Province, which opened on May 3, where a debate about banning older people has erupted (Jecheon Sports Training Center) A public pool with eight 50-meter lanes at Jecheon Sports Training Center in North Chungcheong Province, which opened on May 3, where a debate about banning older people has erupted (Jecheon Sports Training Center)

The debate has intensified over indoor spaces barring older people, notably sparked by local reports of residents in Jecheon, North Chungcheong Province, debating on online forums whether to designate a newly opened public swimming pool as a "no-seniors zone."

One commenter posted: “People over 65 use the pool in a very dirty way, such as urinating in the water, and complain a lot, which ruins the atmosphere. Their use should be restricted.” The pool in question, reportedly a state-of-the-art public pool with eight 50-meter lanes, opened May 3.

Another commenter added: “There are older men who don't shower before entering the pool and just get into the lane. Some even urinate in the shower. Furthermore, they don't yield to fast swimmers in the lane.”

Other commenters opposed the notion that older people might be banned from using the public facility, fearing it could encourage more age-based exclusions.

Such "no-seniors zones" are akin to "no-kids zones," which have recently surfaced in South Korea by restaurants and cafes claiming that children accompanying their parents disrupt quiet or sophisticated atmospheres exclusively for adults.

A cafe sign reads: A cafe sign reads: "No-seniors zone (no entry for elderly over 60)." (The Qoo)

The controversy over no-seniors zones in the country began in May 2023 when a photo posted in a Theqoo discussion forum showed a cafe door with the words, “No-seniors zone (no entry for elderly over 60)," written on it. Next to it was a sticker saying "Guide dogs welcome."

Also, in September 2023, an employee of a Billy Angel franchise cafe told an older customer, “You have stayed at this cafe too long.” The employee even gave the customer a message telling him to leave, saying, “Due to you, young customers don't come in here at all.” The franchise later published an official apology.

Such incidents have emerged amid growing concern over public manifestations of intolerance and discrimination in South Korean society, according to observers. “The continuous emergence of ‘no-someone zones’ in Korean society means that exclusion among groups is increasing, while efforts to understand each other are disappearing,” said Lee Min-ah, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University.

Experts said that the emergence of no-seniors zones reflects younger generations' negative perceptions of older people, which has worsened due to divisions and conflict between generations here, amid a lack of mutual understanding and communication.

Nonetheless, they stressed that banning customers based on their age is explicit discrimination, and that Korean society needs to move from its current age-differentiated society to being an age-integrated society.

“It is inappropriate to generalize about all older people. Claims that older people are 'dirty' and should be excluded from pools show prejudice and lack of understanding,” said Hur Jun-soo, a professor of social welfare studies at Soongsil University. “In general, ageism should be recognized as a serious form of discrimination in the same context as racism, sexism and ableism.”

“In other countries, ageism is treated very seriously, with legal consequences for the parties involved. As Korea is projected to be a super-aged society in 2025, each generation should try to understand the others.”

The number of people aged 65 or older is expected to reach 10.51 million in 2025, or 20.3 percent of the total population, putting the country on the threshold of a super-aged society, according to the data from Statistics Korea.

Hur also stressed, “There are few to no administrative or legal bases to sanction age discrimination under the current law. We need to establish a legal basis upon which to punish blatant discrimination against a certain group of people."

Article 11 of the country's Constitution states: “There shall be no discrimination in political, economic, social or cultural life on account of sex, religion or social status.” The National Human Rights Commission of Korea cited this clause in 2017 in its ruling that "no-kids zones" constitute acts of discrimination and are illegal. Still, the NHRCK lacks the legal authority to enforce its ruling on businesses, and thus its ruling remains only a "recommendation."