Japan is experiencing a rapidly aging and shrinking of its population. Many of the island’s inhabitants are still healthy at an advanced age – and are still working. The elderly are an important pillar in counteracting the shortage of labor.
Harumi Okubo fills the round dumplings with vegetables with her small hands and lines them up next to a smoking furnace. “Our generation is always hard-working”, proudly declared the Japanese woman. Okubo is 79 years old. She has been baking oyaki, a vegetable or sweet bean paste-filled pastry, at a restaurant in her hometown of Ogawa for six years in Japan’s mountainous Nagano Prefecture. “Here I can chat. After all, at home I would have nothing to talk about with my husband,” laughs the great-grandmother of two. “Working to stay active for life” is his company vision, says Okubo’s employer Koryu Gonda. Of his 70 employees, he says, 25 are older than 60.
Japan’s Aging Population and its Effect on the Workforce
No other industrialized nation in the world is aging as rapidly as Japan. According to the Ministry of the Interior in Tokyo, the proportion of people over 65 in the total population of the world’s third-largest economy ahead of Germany is now 29.1 percent. Japan has the highest life expectancy in the world, with an average of 87.6 years for women and 81.5 years for men in 2021.
It is therefore not surprising that the proportion of people still working in their senior years is higher in Japan than in other developed countries. Around nine million of them are now over 65, which is 13.5 percent of the working population. In many companies in Japan, it is common for employees to officially retire at 60 or before. More than 80 percent are then kept on, but often at drastically lower wages. Since pensions are often not paid until the age of 65, many older people are simply dependent on continuing to work.
Challenges and Opportunities for Elderly Workers in Japan’s Labor Market
Many elderly workers in Japan have to rely on low-paying, physically demanding, and unstable jobs, such as security guards at construction sites or building cleaners, to earn a living. On the other hand, statistics show that the willingness of older Japanese to work is generally higher than in some Western countries, Miho Fujinami of Chiba Keizai University explained in the newspaper Japan Times. People like Harumi Okubo and her colleagues. Nagano, their home prefecture, has the highest percentage of employees over the age of 65 in Japan, which is 31.6 percent.
The Importance of Healthcare and Preventative Medicine in Japan’s Aging Society
The population’s healthcare receives special attention in this exemplary island kingdom. The mountainous prefecture boasts that its inhabitants eat many more vegetables every day than the national average. According to the motto “prevention is better than treatment,” doctors and nurses began to be sent to the villages for regular checkups shortly after World War II, says Shusuke Natsukawa, honorary director of Saku Central Hospital in Nagano. Today, such group checkups are common in companies and communities throughout Japan.
On a nearby wooded hill, Satoko Fujioka runs an innovative medical facility that organizes medical home visits in cooperation with Natsukawa’s hospital while providing a creative place of community for old and young alike. Surrounded by books, musical instruments and toys, professionals care for disabled children in the cozy wooden house, while senior citizens volunteer to cook for everyone next to them. Fujioka describes her “hotch lodge” with a smile as a place with a clinic and a big kitchen.
The aim of the “Hotch Lodge” is to provide a community for elderly people while also overcoming barriers. More and more senior citizens in Japan are living alone. While it used to be common for several generations to live under one roof and for the younger ones to look after the elderly, the trend today is increasingly toward the nuclear family – also in Nagano. At the “Hotch Lodge,” the elderly are reconnecting. “We don’t just see people here as patients or the consequences of aging,” Fujioka says, explaining the concept. Everyone has a personality, skills, and experience that they can contribute to the community here, he says.
The Generations on the Labor Market
The baby boomers (1946 – 1964) are the oldest generation in the labor market. These cohorts recorded the highest birth rate, hence the name.
The cohorts of Generation X (1965 – 1979) have experienced a lot: economic crises, technological leaps, unemployment, and environmental disasters. They are considered to be those who value a good income and a secure job above all else.
Generation Y, also known as Millennials, was born between 1980 and 1995. They are the first cohort to be considered digital natives.
They have been entering the job market for a few years now: Generation Z, born between 1996 and 2010. They have grown up with the Internet from an early age; digital media have shaped their lives from the very beginning.
Challenges of Japan’s Shrinking Workforce and Government Efforts to Address Them
Such initiatives promote healthy aging and enable people to work longer. And at the same time, they relieve the burden on the healthcare system. After all, the healthcare system is coming under increasing pressure due to a decline in births and an aging population. Added to this is the fact that Japan, a G7 country, has no active immigration policy. Experts claim that Japan relies heavily on its healthy elderly population. But Japan’s population is shrinking – and so is its workforce.
The elderly alone is by no means enough to combat the growing shortage of labor. The government has made increasing the birth rate its top priority. “The next six or seven years will be our last chance,” says the head of government Fumio Kishida. Among other things, he wants to create financial incentives and ensure that more men participate in raising children.
Kishida promises to change the national mentality to meet the challenges. Shusuke Natsukawa of Saku Central Hospital in Nagano, however, is skeptical. The state has often proclaimed great things, he says. “Many young people today find it unrealistic to get married and have children,” he laments. “The future is very uncertain.”