Graying Japan

Aging In Japan エージング日本

Graying Japan, Tokyo.

Is an economic powerhouse heading for decrepitude?

"Granddad, didn't you see that red light?"

"You didn't hear that truck honk, granny?"

In the 10 years between 1996 and 2006, while the annual number of traffic accidents in Japan stayed almost the same, the number caused by drivers aged 65 years or over rose by over seven times, from 1.6% of all accidents to 11.9% (or 838,910 incidents) 10 years later.

Japan itself is on a course that may well end in a major crash 30 or 40 years from now and it's all to do with aging.

Still alert enough to see the red lights and hear the distant honking, Japan is gearing up for a gray future.

Old outnumber young in Japan

In 1997, Japan's over-65 population outnumbered the under-14 population for the first time since census statistics began being compiled. The number of births in Japan in 2005 was only 1,062,530, compared with 2,696,638 in the first baby boom of 1947. Youth formed only 13.5% of the population in 2005, the lowest in the world - far below the 28.3% international average.

"Too young to be married..."

Marriage in Japan has also been steadily declining. There are more and more singles, and those who do marry are doing so later and later. The average age for marriage in 2006 was 30 years for men and 28.2 years for women. The average age for giving birth to a first child has risen to 29.2 years.

On the basis of these statistics and others, it is projected that the population of Japan, currently around 127 million, will drop to around 90 million in 2055, of which over 40% will be people aged 65 years or older. This represents a drop in the current workforce population of around one-third (from around 66 million in 2006 to 42 million in 2050).

What scares those in charge of present-day Japan is the very real prospect of a society made up largely of old people with no means of financial support - support which, up until now, has been provided by a large employed - in fact, work-addicted - population.

Addressing workaholism

The key problem to be addressed is a problem that has until now been the very foundation of Japan's economic success: hard work. Work in Japan is such a ubiquitous part of the lifestyle that it forces people to choose between it and parenting. Since the mid-1990's, the Japanese government has been taking countermeasures against the projected decline in the working population by trying to create a social environment that balances parenting and working, i.e., one where it is easier to raise children.

One such measure is the Declining Birthrate Society Countermeasures Basic Act of 2005, designed to enhance childcare facilities and involve business and local government in projects to make parenting easier. This was followed up in 2007 with the Charter for Balance between an Individual's Work and Personal Life ("Work-Life Balance"), drawn up by a top-level committee of cabinet ministers and prominent figures in the economic, labor, and local government world.

More room for kids

One of the major current problems with daycare is daycare waiting lists, making daycare inaccessible to large numbers of infant candidates. This situation was specifically targeted in 2008 with a 10-year plan to increase daycare capacity by 1 million places, and enhance after school club activities for elementary school age children.

70% of working women who give birth leave the workforce more or less permanently. 25% would rather remain working, but find it impossible to balance work and childcare - many because they are unable to get childcare leave from their company or can't get their child into daycare. Enhancing childcare is therefore a key measure in encouraging women to stay on, and their employers to keep them on.

Compared with European countries, which, in 2003, spent between 1.3% (Italy) and 3.5% (Sweden) of their GDP on family-related social expenses, Japan spent a mere 0.75% - outdone in stinginess only by the US (at 0.7%). Childcare allowances are to be introduced to relieve the economic burden on childbearing families, significantly raising the level of such government spending.

Dads in the playpen

Fathers also figure in the above mentioned government initiatives, as traditionally dads have been too busy to support moms in childcare activities. Moves are therefore being made to reduce working hours and promote annual paid leave which, besides for a handful of national holidays, is almost unheard of in Japan.

Keeping the Golden Years rolling

Elderly woman in Tokyo with shopping.

Finally, the other major policy thrust is to employ more old people. Present measures include getting employers to allow male workers to work at least until the pensionable age of 65, raising the compulsory retirement age, or abolishing it. Projects specifically aimed at keeping people employed until at least age 70 are also being proactively implemented.

The old-age pension system is also being revised. The Social Insurance Agency was discontinued in 2010 and replaced with the Japan Pension Service, a non-public-servant public corporation, presumably with the accompanying expectation of greater efficiency. The system of medical care for the elderly is also being re-examined to try and rein in government expenditure in this area. Barrier-free initiatives have also been implemented, and improved health care for the elderly to further promote their continued working.

Finally, with about 20% of the population of Japan aged over 65, it is no surprise that the group most at risk of suicide is that age group. The Basic Suicide Prevention Law of 2006 specifically includes measures that address the problem of suicide by old people, particularly for those in rural areas, which are most suicide prone.

"Work-Life Balance"

Work-Life Balance, as it is referred to, has therefore become the catchphrase of 21st century Japanese social policy. The prospect of an inverted population pyramid has got Japan looking to a more lifestyle-centered, people-friendlier social model. It remains to be seen whether or not government initiatives will be sufficient to render change in the ingrained conventions of business, industry, and local bureaucracy, and in the one-child tendency of most Japanese married couples.

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