Japan’s aging: perceptions and interpretations of economy

I came across a National Post article a few weeks ago on Japan’s aging crisis and its economic impacts. As you may know, a significant chunk of Japan’s population are seniors, and the combination of low birth-rates and longer life expectancies are exacerbating this trend.

In the article, John Ivison describes Japan as having the highest life expectancy worldwide, at  83.4 years. Japan’s birth rate is listed as 1.42 children per couple, below the “replacement rate” of 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. His statistics give additional context: “one in four” Japanese people are above the age of 65 (compared to one in six for Canada), and Ivison predicts that the number of seniors as a total will rise to 40% within 50 years (which I might add seems like a rather long time for a population dynamics prediction).

The facts above are not the purpose of the article; they are merely setting the context. As part of a goal to increase the country’s overall birth rate, the Japanese government is working to secure additional childcare spaces (sensible!). Many seniors are being employed as part-time childcare workers in order to increase the quality of care, the number of spaces available, and the times the childcare spaces can be open. The article also explores some of the stigma towards working parents when the general expectation seems to be a personal/professional balance heavily tilted towards the latter.

The motivations and goals of the project are rightfully complex. Medical researchers believe that the sense of work and purpose will help seniors stay active. Educational advocates see a chance for retirees to share their accumulated knowledge and skills. A debt-loaded government with expanding medical insurance costs is trying to increase the number of workers who are supporting these costs. What is notable to Mr. Ivison is Japan’s innovation in finding appropriate work for its aging population in order to support a listless economy.

The reason that the article intrigues me is because this all seems to be a profoundly MODERN problem! People are outliving the “use” society has for them as working professionals, but the “costs” associated with a large senior population (especially health care) are high, so new forms of “work” need to be found to accommodate and utilize the senior population. Perhaps I am being a retrospective utopian, but I can’t help but imagine that there were alternate solutions in our histories. Granted, life expectancies were shorter, the problem wasn’t as widespread. But I also believe older generations were integrated more naturally. Raising grandchildren, yes, as the article covers, but also raising the children of the community as a whole. Sure, that is similar the initiative described in the article, but I imagine it used to happen more naturally and commonly. Older generations used to also keep stories, provide advice, and in general, support their community. Of course, none of these things necessarily pay medical bills, but they are useful components of a healthy society.

This problem is not unique to Japan. It is less urgent in Canada because we are much more receptive to immigration to offset low birth rates, and our birth rate is higher than Japan’s (although still below replacement, I believe). Nonetheless, we have a similar concern of an aging population and increased medical care. I wonder what sorts of solutions we can integrate.

Important note: between the fourth and fifth paragraphs, I picked up my copy of Aziz Ansari’s book Modern Romance for a quick distraction break. Flipping to a random section of the book, I somehow landed on a section about JAPAN’S POPULATION CRISIS!!! Bizarre. Also, somewhat wittier than reading about it in NP. If you feel a pressing need to learn more about Jurassic Park-themed love hotels or appropriate objects to use as online dating profile pics in Japan, I suggest you grab a copy.



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