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The Stooped Generation: Brief Observations on Ageing in Japan

25 May 2018 2:09 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

By Peter Griggs

Recently, Tracey and I were fortunate to spend some time in Japan. A very noticeable feature of the crowds in the streets and on the trains were those who I identified as ‘stooped’ – elderly Japanese hunched over walking frames, moving slowly along with the assistance of walking sticks or being pushed in wheelchairs. Several of our guides on day trips announced that they were officially ‘retired’ but were continuing to work in a part-time capacity. Many taxi drivers appeared to be elderly. Officials wearing blue uniforms and directing traffic were often elderly.

The figures in Table 1 show currently that Japan has just over a quarter of its population aged over 65 years, the highest percentage for all countries. Globally, the country has the highest elderly dependency ratio (i.e. the number of over 65-year old citizens dependent upon 100 employed adults) and the highest median age for any national population (i.e. middle value).

Table 1. Demographic figures for selected countries, 2017 estimates

Japan has reached this situation due to a combination of two factors. The country, like Australia, Canada and the USA, experienced a ‘baby boom’ after World War II. The total Japanese population rose from 71.9 million (1945) to 111.9 million (1975). This trend has coincided with increased life expectancies. Today, Japan has the world’s highest life expectancy, so all those people born after 1945 have an increased chance of surviving into their eighties (or beyond).

The implications for Japan are profound. To support so many elderly, the country must maintain its economic prosperity. This task will provide its leaders a challenge, especially at a time when the Japanese population is predicted to shrink from 125 million (2020) to 107 million (2050) due to the country’s very low birth rates. Current Japanese workers may have to come to terms with the idea that they will be required to work until the age of seventy (or beyond), and that they will have to pay higher taxes to support so many elderly persons. Innovative solutions to caring for so many aged, such as the use of robots, may become more common.

Finally, from a global perspective, the world (and Japan) is in uncharted territory. Five hundred years ago, the life expectancy of some-one living in England was around 38-40 years of age. Currently, the world and individual countries have never had so many aged persons, and the numbers are likely to increase, especially in China where the current number of people aged over 65 is expected to rise from 123 million to 440 million by 2050.

There are no trends or insights from the past to guide global leaders in formulating policies to accommodate the ‘stooped’ generation. What is probable, however, is that these elderly will not be silent and that their sheer numbers will create new political movements, demanding a greater share of national resources to care for their aged members.

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