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Generational tensions flare as Japan faces economic reality of aging baby boomers

27 Comments
By Simon Avenell

In 2024, the youngest of Japan’s baby boomers will turn 75. The boomers are called the “bunched” generation in Japan because they were born in a short spurt in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the end of the second world war.

The sheer size of this cohort has made it a lightning rod for many of the thorny social and economic debates in Japan today. Japanese boomers are variously criticized for generational wealth disparity, national debt, and even the environmental crisis.

Historically, the boomers’ experience is very much the story of Japan’s postwar success. But were the boomers just lucky free-riders? And how have they shaped contemporary Japan?

The children of war defeat

Japan was under US-led occupation and struggling with a tattered economy when the boomers were born. Millions of soldiers and settlers had flooded back from the colonies and battlefields. As the Japanese began to rebuild their nation, they also enthusiastically procreated. From 1947 to 1949, Japan recorded around 2.7 million births annually, with a fertility rate exceeding 4.3.

Never again would Japan witness such stunning fertility. Apart from a short-lived uptick in the 1970s, annual births have been declining precipitously.

In 2020, Japan recorded its lowest number of annual births at 840,835 with a fertility rate of just 1.33. This is not the lowest in Asia, but it is well beneath the replacement rate of 2.1.

The protest generation

Japan’s boomers were both the engines and beneficiaries of the country’s economic miracle of the 1950s to 1970s, when GDP growth regularly hit the double digits.

In an age when most youth finished education in their teens, the boomers provided labor for Japan’s heavy, chemical, automotive, and electronics industries. Many migrated to cities like Tokyo, taking up jobs in small factories and retail stores.

The small percentage of boomers lucky enough to enter universities in the 1960s became the flag bearers of youth protest. They rallied against Japan’s subservience to America and its involvement in the Vietnam War. They demanded universities lower fees and give students a greater voice.

Beyond protest, they fashioned new cultures in music and art. Indeed, they were actors in the great theatre that was the “global 1960s”.

As student protest descended into violence in 1970s Japan, public opinion turned against the young boomers. A handful embraced murderous left-wing terrorism, but the majority chose the safety of corporate Japan.

Boomers fashion Japan’s economic miracle

In 1975, the youngest of Japan’s boomers were in their mid-20s. Japan was recovering from a massive hike in oil prices in 1973 and would face another petroleum shock in 1979.

It was the hardworking boomers who sustained Japan through these troubled economic times. In an age of rigidly defined gender roles, boomer men became Japan’s corporate and industrial warriors, while boomer women raised children and cared for elderly parents. Accordingly, they orchestrated Japan’s second – and last – postwar baby boom in the 1970s.

When Japan emerged as an economic superpower in the 1980s, it was the boomers who reaped the rewards. Although not all benefitted equally, Japanese baby boomers, now in their 30s, enjoyed relatively secure employment, a thriving economy, and superior standards of living.

At the same time, as the economy surged, the boomers faced financial pressures in housing and education. Some even worked themselves to death inside Japan’s pressure-cooker corporations.

Nonetheless, things were good for the boomers during Japan’s “bubble” economy of the 1980s. By the end of the decade, the youngest were in their 40s. As mid-career workers, they could both save and spend – something later generations would only dream of.

Intergenerational tensions in recessionary Japan

Just as the boomers were moving into the middle echelons of society, Japan’s economic miracle ended abruptly. What followed from the 1990s onwards has been called Japan’s “lost decades”, an “ice age” of employment, and an era of youth uncertainty and despair.

The boomers, however, survived largely unscathed. Thanks to an employment system that protected senior workers, most (although not all) of the boomers retained their jobs while their children struggled to find even casual work. Many boomers also had savings to fall back on.

But in recessionary Japan, the now-aging boomers raised thorny issues for the country. As a healthy, long-lived, and very large cohort, their approaching retirement in the 2000s threatened the viability of Japan’s already-strained pension and health schemes. Youth born in a post-bubble Japan are faced with carrying this burden.

Not surprisingly, intergenerational tensions have arisen. For the boomers, it is easy to label youth as lazy and lacking perseverance. For the young, boomers were simply lucky to be born in an era of growth. And, to make matters worse, now the young must support the boomers in retirement.

Aging boomers in the oldest society

Given the electoral clout of the boomers, politicians are treading carefully around solutions involving redistribution from the old to the young. Ultimately, intergenerational blaming is not the solution.

Japan’s baby boomers were born into a nation rising, but they also helped to fashion that success. Youth can draw on the boomers’ journey from the ashes of defeat to stunning affluence. But the boomers must also recognize how their generation has contributed to the demographic and socioeconomic challenges facing Japan today.

As the world’s oldest society continues to age, intergenerational empathy from the boomers is now more important than ever.

Simon Avenell is a professor in Modern Japanese History, Australian National University.

The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.

© The Conversation

©2024 GPlusMedia Inc.

27 Comments
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This is sloppy writing.

It's pulled from "The Conversation" What do you expect?

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Your suggestions seem sensible, Makaha. Maybe too sensible for the clowns in charge. Sadly, "We all have to make sacrifices and take action if we want Japan to remain globally relevant," has been the mantra for at least 70 years. Everyone was told that sacrifices would be rewarded in the long term but now they are being asked to make more. With all the previous sacrifices made, Japan should be a paradise now.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

Complaining and blaming across generations won't accomplish much. To some extent, all of the issues raised are valid - but we should be looking ahead instead of focusing on the past. Instead, I'd like to see this energy redirected to solutions.

The first place that needs modernization is the Japanese government. Specifically, METI, MoFA, MoE need to urgently modernize their policies. Japan needs to get back to being an innovator in technology, manufacturing and energy. Some will say it is too late. I disagree. Again, complaining won't get us anywhere and we need to urgently change, take action.

We need better policies on immigration and double down on making Japan a great destination for skilled labor. On the education front, we need to get back to developing students who are hungry to succeed on the global stage, not just in Japan. The percentage of exchange students studying abroad for example is a pittance compared to what it was in the 90's. S. Korea has done well on many of these fronts driven by government policies. They are 1/3 the size of Japan. We can and should be doing MUCH better.

Let's vote in forward looking politicians who understand the need for change. Citizens should also understand that any change is difficult and will require compromise. We all have to make sacrifices and take action if we want Japan to remain globally relevant.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

Seems like generational strife has been everywhere since there have been old people. I guess the most we can hope for is that young people are being taught what they need to know about history and old people aren't too stingy with taxes.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Japan's LDP regime is inciting "tension" between generations with using pro‐government influencers to distract public criticism or antipathy against incompetent government who only indulge wealth classes or greedy large corporations who only exploit citizen.

One assistant professor who recent domestic TV channels call "genius" proposals even mass murder against elderly people.

-7 ( +1 / -8 )

Abolishing mandatory retirement age rules would help. Keep people who want to continue to work and pay taxes.

I agree. Just no jobs that involve driving.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

Recall that during the 'bubble' years, the Japanese government considered making arrangements to set up elder care facilities for Japanese citizens in foreign countries, anticipating the problems of trying to care for large numbers of Japanese baby boomers, as they aged. Even then the government was aware of the possible problems, and considered dumping those problems on another country. The ruling political party has a long history of not dealing with current problems, instead resorting to kicking the problems down the road for someone else to try to resolve later; the energy problems are one more example of kicking the can down the road.

-3 ( +5 / -8 )

dagonToday  08:39 am JST

Generational tensions flare as Japan faces economic reality of aging baby boomers

Read that these boomers with their pensions and well-hoarded savings accounts are sitting on some of the largest accumulations of capital in the world. 

And are being eyed by vulture capital private equity for extractionpension in Japan are the lowest of the G7 countries.

Well I am not to sure, it all depends.

People who worked for large companies do well thanks to nice corporate pension plans.

For the other ones public pension are the lowest in the G7.

Those who have saving they have been receiving 0% interest rate for the last 20 years. Right now with a 3.5 % inflation rate they see their savings destroyed.

For those who invested this is another story but most of them did not because they were burnt during the bubble burst.

if you want to see wealthy pensioners go to Europe. It is another planet

7 ( +14 / -7 )

Where is the evidence of intergenerational tension?

True, thelonius. For the most part the young in Japan seem fully sympathetic with the official narrative of Japan's postwar (and pre-war) history - endlessly repeated - and barely question it. I don't actually see the boomers as culpable - they mainly did what they were told. The price of postwar policy was obedience and silence. Where there was discord, by the early 70s it was mostly stamped out and mostly by the generation that had been reared on pre-war, nationalistic and essentially corporatist propaganda.

-7 ( +11 / -18 )

they also enthusiastically procreated. 

That must’ve been fun. I think the younger generation also knows that the boomers hold the majority of wealth and for many years had job security and strong economic growth.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

The single thing that keeps Japan going

Is actually the government increasing the debt, allowing constant higher budget to keep the economy moving

2 ( +5 / -3 )

Life isn't about obedience to the system.

3 ( +6 / -3 )

The people are not responsible for the ills of society. Politicians are.

4 ( +8 / -4 )

Boomers thrived on the trajectory of post-WW2 capitalism. The "OK, Boomer" backlash whipped up in recent years by the usual right-wing suspects supposedly originated, ironically, as a criticism of pro-Israeli right-wingers and has today become a meme that represents today's generational conflict of interests. The crux of the matter is that ageist blame for the present economic difficulties of the younger generations often laid at the feet of the "selfish" boomers is misplaced: Boomers were not the instigators of the Cold War, the Korean War, America's wars on Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and counter-revolution around the world all of which cost many millions of lives. Again, it's the capitalism, stupid! (and the myriad of problems that have been festering for decades on a global scale)

-3 ( +6 / -9 )

And are being eyed by vulture capital private equity for extraction.

And scam artists

And the government themselves, who will take 40%+ of those hard earned savings in inheritance tax.

6 ( +11 / -5 )

Where is the evidence of intergenerational tension? How is this tension manifested?

Not saying it's not there, but a decent writer would back up their piece with evidence. This is sloppy writing.

18 ( +21 / -3 )

Baby boomers in Japan who didn't save any money had better get used to living on a very small budget, there are just not anywhere near enough taxpayers to fund their retirement and healthcare.

3 ( +9 / -6 )

And are being eyed by vulture capital private equity for extraction.

And scam artists

11 ( +11 / -0 )

Abolishing mandatory retirement age rules would help

Yes ! Why are perfectly healthy, very intelligent workers forced to retire in their ‘60’s, but politicians can still continue into their ‘80’s !?

its a joke !

20 ( +23 / -3 )

Generational tensions flare as Japan faces economic reality of aging baby boomers

Read that these boomers with their pensions and well-hoarded savings accounts are sitting on some of the largest accumulations of capital in the world.

And are being eyed by vulture capital private equity for extraction.

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/06/22/business/private-equity-japan-image/

7 ( +10 / -3 )

"Young people are poor because they dont work hard enough."

Give me a break. Wages for the most part have been stagnant in Japan for decades. prices HAVE been going up consistently whether it be longterm shrinkflation, or more recent inflation.

The single thing that keeps Japan going imo is that houses are affordable, and they could be even more affordable if the construction companies werent so protected, and they couldnt rip everyone off anymore.

Things are hopefully going to get better in the coming years as some of that boomer wealth is passed down to the younger, "lazy" generations, but there will still be a large % who are not so fortunate.

11 ( +18 / -7 )

In 2024, the youngest of Japan’s baby boomers will turn 75.

This article use baby boomer for anyone who born from 1947-1949? People from 1950 immediately considered as GenX?

Usually baby boomers is referring to people who are born from 1946 to 1964

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baby_boomers

As a healthy, long-lived, and very large cohort, their approaching retirement in the 2000s threatened the viability of Japan’s already-strained pension and health schemes. Youth born in a post-bubble Japan are faced with carrying this burden.

Also Japan's cheap labor what being called trainee from developing countries they got their salary being cut for pension scheme that most of them won't enjoy at all, they can be only in Japan for few yeas, so they won't stay in Japan during old times. However J Govt just want them to contribute no matter what.

Those trainees can claim small part of that pensions, and in the middle another Japanese companies making profit from those sweat of those trainees.

https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Technology/Japanese-firm-helps-foreign-workers-claim-pension-refunds

At the end those older generation no need to worry with current J Govt support, they are favorable voters for current J Govt.

https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Datawatch/Boon-or-bane-Japan-s-LDP-boosts-support-among-older-voters

-10 ( +11 / -21 )

“My parents are Boomers. They worked hard, paid big taxes, huge interests rates for a period in the 80's (17% anyone???)” Interest rates were a lot higher, but the ratio of earnings to house prices was far narrower than it is now for one. Swings and roundabouts.

4 ( +10 / -6 )

And invented all of the technology people use and built the infrastructure people take for granted today.

You guys shouldn’t have devolved corporate structures into US style “profit at the cost of society,” hollowed out manufacturing, destroyed the skilled worker class and made your own pensions shrink to none or a drop or two.

Building a TikTok or YouTube channel full of nonsense is now the life goal of your kids.

Good job.

12 ( +20 / -8 )

Abolishing mandatory retirement age rules would help. Keep people who want to continue to work and pay taxes. Changes need to be made, but is the current government even capable of them? So far, it looks like sheer chaos in going to rule.

12 ( +17 / -5 )

Were they not beneficiaries of an alliance of international trends as much as anything Japan did? A growing world and especially US economy helped. Japan, having, as we are continually reminded, few natural resources, was not beholden to entrenched domestic producers of them and could buy as cheaply as possible on world markets. Geo-politically strategic and regarded by the US as a shining light against communism, Japan was afforded unfettered access to the biggest market, while allowed to dissemble on its own market opening, and this was coupled with cheap transfer of technology to Japan from the US. The boomers luck in part comes from Japan's luck.

10 ( +21 / -11 )

My parents are Boomers. They worked hard, paid big taxes, huge interests rates for a period in the 80's (17% anyone???) and made generational changes in family levels of education and general prosperity.

In Japan, they rebuilt a socially and economically devastated country into the thriving country it is today, something the younger generations need to be mindful of, and thankful for.

12 ( +29 / -17 )

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