Japan turns silver into gold

Faced with being the world’s most rapidly aging society, Japan has decided to see the demographic challenge as a ‘bonus’ rather than an ‘onus,’ forcing it to be more innovative and to view old folks in a new light.

A robot named Andoroid Repliee Q2 (left) faces graduate student Motoko Noma at an exhibition in Tokyo in this 2006 file photo. Japanese researchers hope that robots like this one will be the answer to a pressing question hanging over the country -- how to cope with an aging population and a declining labor force.

The Japanese cosmetics maker Pola recently hired a woman over 100 years old. The company already employs thousands of workers in their 80s and 90s. So recruiting a centenarian was no big deal. In fact, it fits right into Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s strategy for the world’s most rapidly aging nation. He wants to turn people’s silver years into gold for the economy. And to do so requires a rejection of old concepts about what it means to be old.

Mr. Abe was in New York this week with a message for other countries confronted by a graying population. “Japan may be aging. Japan may be losing its population. But these are incentives for us,” he said at a public forum. “Why? Because we will continue to be motivated to grow our productivity.”

Japan’s demographic challenge is regarded as a “silver tsunami.” New data shows 27.3 percent of the population is now over 65, a record high for the country and the highest among advanced economies. By 2037, seniors will make up 38 percent of a shrunken population. (By comparison, about 8 percent of the world’s population was over 65 in 2014.)

For Japan, the expected additional costs in health care and pensions will only add to an already high national debt. Yet this shift is forcing Japan to do more with less, mainly by changing its labor patterns and boosting innovation. Abe is trying to move more women and older people into the workforce. And industries are being encouraged to become even more competitive in new technologies, such as robots, especially ones that can accommodate the needs of seniors. In addition, the expanding cohort of older people is expected to have enough discretionary savings to boost consumer spending.

Japan’s aging society, Abe said, is “not an onus, but a bonus.”

His view is in line with new research about an aging population in much of Asia, where the number of older people is expected to jump 71 percent by 2030, far higher than in Europe and the United States. In a new book about the positive implications of the region’s population changes, David Bloom of Harvard University writes: “[A]larmist literature tends to assume that age-specific behavior will remain constant with respect to earnings, employment, and savings.”

With more than a third of all countries now considered to be aging, Japan is setting an example – not just in coping with such a change but mining it. The first step requires seeing the old in a new light.

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