'Silver talent centers' match new careers to Japan's elderly

Retired newspaper executive Mitsuhiro Tomioka's family protested that his behavior was unseemly when he started to work again - weeding his neighbors' gardens.

Mr. Tomioka, however, said he enjoyed the simplicity of his new job, especially after the frenetic daily newspaper activity.

Now Tomioka's wife, Sachiko, has followed him back into the workplace. She cheerfully turns out rice balls at a local food takeout shop.

The couple have taken advantage of the chance to extend their working lives through opportunities offered by a steadily growing chain of nationwide ''silver talent centers.''

This unique service locates part-time or full-time jobs for older citizens in public organizations, private companies, and sometimes even in individual homes.

Based on previous experience or interests, the applicants registered with each center are matched to job openings. And some centers even offer training courses for those who want to learn new skills.

The first silver talent center was established in Tokyo's downtown Edogawa Ward early in 1975. The Japanese capital now has 49 centers and some 180 are operating throughout the country, with an estimated 60,000 registrants. The centers are established as a cooperative venture by local governments, private enterprise, and other interested groups. The Labor Ministry - eager that the silver-talents idea gain wider publicity and acceptance - provides about $5 million annually to promote it.

The whole idea came about in response to emerging demographic and economic problems in Japan. The Japanese population is rapidly becoming an older one. The birthrate has declined drastically, while Japanese now are living on the average longer than almost any other people on earth.

In about 35 years, it is estimated, this nation will have the world's highest ratio of those aged 65 and over. This group constitutes 8.9 percent of the population today; it will grow to 20 percent by 2020.

The financial impact on the state and on the working population will be tremendous, experts stress. Prof. Naohiro Ogawa of Nihon University says: ''By 2020, total annual expenditure on pensions will have increased at least 13-fold, and social security payments, ninefold.

''Social security expenditure will amount to some 40 percent of the gross national product, and the economic growth rate will dwindle to almost zero.''

Naohiro Yashiro, an economic planning agency policymaker, points out that public pension programs began here just over 20 years ago. As a result, today's recipients have contributed the equivalent of only one-third of the benefits they are receiving.

Now, as in other countries, the younger workers who are shouldering the burden stand to gain the least from it.

Average medical expenses for the elderly are about triple the average per capita figure for the entire population, so that health insurance payments will also swell rapidly in the years to come, Mr. Yashiro predicts.

Until recently, the average retirement age in Japan was 55. Gradually this is being raised to 60 by many industries. Some private sector companies have moved it to 65 or even abolished mandatory retirement.

To offset rising personnel costs, however, many companies are freezing salaries after a certain age. And some are rehiring retired workers on a part-time basis at lower salaries and without fringe benefits.

But this still leaves a large pool of idle men and women, forced to retire in the prime of life while still mentally and physically alert, but not having a clear plan for retirement, and facing a decline into boredom.

It is this group that the silver talents centers want to lure back into the work force, in one capacity or another.

Japanese seem to perceive retirement differently than Americans and West Europeans do. A Tokyo government survey found that the latter regard ''old age'' as the time of retirement from work, while Japanese see it as ''life after one's health has deteriorated.''

In Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward, the vice-chairman of the local center, Kozo Inokawa, says bluntly that it is a duty of the elderly to work as long as they are physically and mentally capable, so as to ease the financial burden on the nation.

And on a blackboard behind him are listed personal reasons that the retired should seek a new working life. Among them: social isolation, loneliness within the family due to a generation gap, a feeling of emptiness and worthlessness, physical deterioration due to having nothing to do, and economic need.

Some applicants to the silver talents centers are certainly looking for a chance to supplement inadequate pensions. But the Bunkyo Ward chairman, Yoshitaro Otani, says that nonfinancial considerations are really behind the success of the centers.

''The elderly can find joy in rejoining the mainstream of society and finding new friends,'' Mr. Otani explains. ''They can prolong their physical and mental capability. They can obtain new information that will provide material for new conversations at home. Finally, finding some kind of fresh obligation and commitment will enhance mental fulfillment.''

The object, he says, ''is to get elderly people away from a life vegetating in front of the television set.

''After a while you can see the change in their eyes. . . . They are far more lively. The fear of growing old and dying alone is definitely lessened, too.''

The vice-secretary-general of the Tokyo Metropolitan Aged People's Enterprise Promotion Foundation, Natsuki Miyazawa, says: ''The overall aim is to establish in each area a group of elderly people who will work together on a voluntary basis to help each other and promote a new type of closer community relationship.''

The main task now, he explains, is to institutionalize the new system (a national headquarters was established in Tokyo in July), as well as secure the necessary legal measures so the elderly have the same protection as other workers.

Another metropolitan headquarters official, Masaharu Oshimoto, adds: ''What we want to ensure is that no one regards these people as cheap labor. There is no fixed wage, but we keep a close eye open for any exploitation.''

One of the big selling points, however, is that a company hiring retirees doesn't have the added financial burden of health insurance and pension contributions.

Each center carefully examines each potential job. ''We won't accept anything that might be humiliating to older people,'' Mr. Oshimoto explains. He cites the example of men carrying signboards advertising nude shows, cabarets, and bars.

Before a center is set up, local offices and homes are contacted to establish potential job openings. Thereafter, anyone aged 60 or over is eligible to register information about past career and future requirements, with an annual payment of 600 yen (about $2.30).

''We screen every applicant carefully,'' he says. ''We want to be sure they are sincere and will be reliable workers.''

The most common outdoor jobs are gardening, warehouse guards, door-to-door salesmen, survey agents, and bill collectors. Office work usually involves tasks like addressing envelopes, handling bills and documents, or even librarians' duties.

More specialized activity may involve editing and translating, carpentry, dressmaking and furnituremaking, and repair work.

Individual services include baby-sitting, taking youngsters to kindergarten, and caring for the elderly.

One Tokyo-based silver talent center has developed a good business in building television sets and bicycles from old discarded parts.

In the northern prefecture of Yamagata, another group is making Christmas and Easter decorations from pine cones and vegetable seeds for export to America and Europe.

Whatever the job, the workers set hours depending on their needs.

Yoshiko Noneyama, an adviser to the Tokyo headquarters, says many office workers want to continue in the same line after retirement, although others prefer more physically active work like gardening.

She recalls a dressmaker whose eyesight was failing who decided to switch over full-time to his hobby, gardening.

In downtown Tokyo, where traditional crafts still thrive (such as the making of kimonos, tatami straw mats, and sliding paper doors and window screens), some older workers want to continue their trade, but at a less pressured pace.

Through the silver talents centers they can work slower, concentrating more on quality and less on profit. Some even teach their craft to others.

Because of improvements in pensions and social welfare, however, many centers are finding it increasingly difficult to attract new members.

Mr. Tomioka, the former newspaper executive, thinks people are missing the point. ''It's not really the money that is so important - although I know people who have saved enough for overseas trips. But the real significance is that you avoid social isolation and have a continued sense of identity that tends to disappear once you quit work.

''My family wanted me to grow old gracefully after retirement,'' Mr. Tomioka says. ''But I rejected that. I've never been happier, and now that they see that they are reconciled to seeing me amongst the weeds.''

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