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The crisis of super-aging – how can Japanese society cope?

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A perpetual cause of astonishment among commentators and the general public is government inaction in the face of signs clearly legible to everyone that action is needed. Case in point: the population crisis – or, as Spa (Jan  25) puts it, “the crisis of super-aging.”

A dwindling birth rate combined with a growing elderly population produces easily calculable results. The population ages at such-and-such a pace, the working population declines and the dependent elderly population rises, with foreseeable strains on the economy and social welfare programs. The signs have been clear since the mid-1980s, says economist Kazumasa Oguro. Little was done, and the crisis proceeded unchecked.

All developed countries are aging, but none as rapidly as Japan. In 2020, 28.8 percent of Japanese were elderly – 65 or over – versus 20 percent in the U.S. and Europe. That’s nothing compared to what’s ahead, says Spa.

In 2025 the youngest of Japan’s baby boom generation turn 75. From 2025 to 2040, the “working-age population” (age 20-64) will fall by about 10 million. “It’s like a tsunami,” says Oguro.

A rising tsunami, he might have said. In 2000 there were 3.6 people of working age per elderly person. By 2050 there will be 1.3. Where will the money come from? Supposing the consumption tax to be the source, calculations show it will have to rise from the current 10 percent to 22 percent by 2040 and 30 percent by 2060. That is, Spa adds, presuming the economy grows at a modest but steady pace of 1 percent per year. Oguro, for one, fears that’s overly optimistic.

It’s a political problem as well as an economic one. The term “silver democracy” sums it up well. Elderly voters want, vote for, and, if their numbers are sufficient, get old-age benefits, explains sociologist Ryosuke Nishida. No wonder, he says, many younger people don’t bother voting. They know in advance that their own declining numbers are an insufficient counterweight. Last year’s Lower House elections drew a voting rate of 56 percent, third lowest postwar. “Not voting is now seen as natural,” says Nishida. One result: programs encouraging childbirth and supporting child-rearing are starved in favor of benefits for the elderly.

Not that needy senior citizens don’t merit benefits. But there’s resentment growing among the young, says Spa – a perception that their elders monopolize most of the national wealth even without benefits. There are figures backing that up. More than 60 percent of the national wealth is in elderly hands. The elderly were, after all, beneficiaries in their prime of a thriving economy. Promotions were seniority- (not merit-) based; wage increases taken for granted. Succeeding generations fared less well. The economic bubble burst in the early 1990s; there followed 20 years and more of economic stagnation, hiring freezes, part-time low-paying jobs for want of anything better. Thus the so-called “lost generation.” Just as things began looking up, along came COVID-19 and the staggering “coronavirus economy.”

It’s now become commonplace to talk of “living to 100.” The government has been pushing measures to keep people working to age 70 and beyond. In 2019 the government’s Financial Services Agency released a report saying an average couple living to age 95 would need 20 million yen in savings to live reasonably well beyond retirement. How to raise that kind of money in these troubled times? The government promptly rejected the report. Evidently it’s still not ready to confront the crisis head-on.

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

14 Comments
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great article and spot on

Dark days ahead here

8 ( +16 / -8 )

Even if you have great skills if you are not already holding a management position by age 50

you are already failure and will be very difficult to switch a get a better job. Only jobs holding a flag

at construction site or packing entrance at shop malls await you when you retire at 60. You are doomed

if you haven't savings and have to rely on the kokumin nenkin, good luck living on the 65K monthly payment.

You have no choice but work even to the age of 90 or as long as the body can cope. Stories of pensioners

retiring to Florida or taking trips on a cruiser around the world is not possible for the vast majority here.

Well, you reap what you sow.

-3 ( +9 / -12 )

I can’t retire, neither can my husband. People need to get real.

7 ( +10 / -3 )

Time to head for the sunny and cheaper shores of ____.

-1 ( +3 / -4 )

No problem for my retirement.

I forgot to mention I was not paying in that Japanese Ponzi scheme.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

A sociological article written by a financially illiterate person.  

Where will the money come from?

The govt and central bank print it. The govt issues debt, mostly to its own institutions, half of which the central bank absorbs -- with no financial consequences. Duh.

Japan is not funded by paper money but through economic resources, and the Japanese make things like Toyotas and most of the world's industrial robots. That's why there is no "crisis," despite the predictions going back 15 years or more. In about 20 years time, these articles are going to look really ridiculous. Like "The Coming Ice Age" in the 1960s. LOL.

-5 ( +2 / -7 )

The answer, I think, is quite obvious; but society and government do not want to face reality. Recently I read about Germany planning to attract more skilled foreign workers. They are realists and therefore will probably see economic benefits. Too bad Japan is not more like them :(

4 ( +5 / -1 )

– a perception that their elders monopolize most of the national wealth even without benefits. There are figures backing that up. More than 60 percent of the national wealth is in elderly hands. 

After years of working, isn’t this normal? Older people did live at a time when jobs were more secure, and they put away money for themselves and their children, but it’s a good thing they did, because public retirement income is rather low.

Not to say there isn’t a problem, but resentment among the young toward the old is misplaced. The elderly did not cause their problem.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

It will be interesting to see how this all plays out. Many countries in the West have a similar situation with their "native" populations, but are addressing the numbers through mass immigration. So, when this all comes to a head in Japan (and some Eastern European countries and other East Asian countries), they will most likely start to even out the numbers again as the elderly populations die off and are replaced by lower and lower numbers of elderly. At that point any increase in the birthrate will get things going toward the direction of positive growth again. They'll just have to power through some tough years. On the other hand, countries in the West will have to carefully manage the transition from their past and current cultures to a new ethnic and cultural landscape. Challenges abound for both approaches.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

The elderly did not cause their problem.

Put it this way, some countries saw what would happen when the Baby Boom generation aged and set up sovereign wealth funds to manage the situation. Other countries just ran up large national debts that have been left to the young. I'm from the UK and the common cry from there is the old claiming "I paid in all my life!" However if the scheme was badly set up or based on low contributions and unsustainably high returns, it will still run out of money. Public funding of things like the medical system and residential care benefits old people. When facing a future with more old people, you have to save for them.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Easy choice, if you have almost nothing when working and the same almost nothing when not working. That’s a phantom discussion for most of the population.

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

Japan is not funded by paper money but through economic resources, and the Japanese make things like Toyotas and most of the world's industrial robots. That's why there is no "crisis," despite the predictions going back 15 years or more. In about 20 years time, these articles are going to look really ridiculous. Like "The Coming Ice Age" in the 1960s. LOL.

The big difference being that "Coming of the Ice Age" articles from the 60s look ridiculous now because the ice age didn't come. There isn't really any uncertainty that what the article is talking about - a massive reduction in the working age population - is going to happen, its already set it stone that it will.

There is no "crisis" now because we are only at the beginning of what will be a long, drawn out process. This does not mean that this is not a serious problem.

Yes, Japan makes things, but its going to be difficult for those car and industrial robot makers to stay competitive internationally as both the pool of talented young people it can draw upon to keep them competitive shrinks year by year and also as public resources that support them (spent on things like infrastructure, education, etc) increasingly go to things like elderly care that do nothing to enhance competitiveness.

The govt and central bank print it. The govt issues debt, mostly to its own institutions, half of which the central bank absorbs -- with no financial consequences. Duh.

This does create a financial consequence - massive levels of public debt. The mere fact that it has been able to keep that juggling act going so far without dire consequences materializing should not be taken as a sign that it can do this indefinitely and allow the debt-to-annual GDP ratio to reach 300%, 400%, 500%....1000%. This is where we are heading even now, and with the coming demographic shift it is going to accelerate rather than be brought under control. This is not sustainable and at some point this system is going to break down.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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