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Pity the generation that can’t retire before 80

by Michael Hoffman

“What if my wife and I die? What if we get dementia? How will our son live?”

“Mr. A” is 63; the son he’s worried about is 35 and has never held a full-time job. Part-time work he has done, but not lately — not in the past 10 years or so. “I guess I’m just not cut out for work,” he sighs. He came of age at a bad time. He’s a college graduate but the economy was depressed, companies weren’t hiring. Part-time work leads nowhere. Soon the young man just lost hold.

His story is hardly unique. Talk of “lost generations” has been current for 20 years and more. It’s the biggest reason why “Abenomics” inspires such hope and faith, much of it born of desperation. The young man himself is not desperate, but his parents are. “Depending on us has become second nature to him,” his father tells Shukan Post magazine. “I managed to delay my retirement for two years, but soon we’ll all be living on my pension and our means will be drastically reduced — and when my wife and I die there won’t even be that. What will the boy do then? I worry so much I can’t sleep nights.”

At least his pension, while he lives, seems secure. The next generation of retirees won’t be so lucky, the weekly Shukan Gendai fears. In 10 years, it predicts, as the working-age population declines and the elderly population swells, pensions won’t be collectible until age 70; in 20 years, until age 80. That means either extending working life beyond anything socially or medically feasible now, or else … what?

Shukan Post’s title is “Children who cannot or will not work.” If Mr. A’s son is typical of those who will not, the disinclination probably stems from unrelieved discouragement which, over the years, drains the life out of a person — the more so, of course, if there are well-off parents to lean on and computer games and the like to fill the time.

Here’s another story, even grimmer. “Mr. B” is a 56-year-old junior high school teacher. His son studied hard, was a good student, got into a good university and graduated with distinction. He sent out 50 job applications and was invited to 30 interviews. But the expected offers didn’t materialize — not a single one. The young man grew seriously depressed. He hinted at suicide. His parents had to watch him constantly. The strain was too much for Mr. B’s wife. It wore her down. Though far from elderly, she showed symptoms of Alzheimer’s. They got worse. She had to be institutionalized. Her son blamed himself. His depression deepened. And so it goes.

“And he was the one whose future I never worried about,” muses Mr. B. “Now I’m simply at my wits’ end.”

Lots of people are, it seems. A dispassionate observer could easily conclude that beneath the calm and orderly surface, so fulsomely admired around the world for holding firm against the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns of March 2011, this country is having a quiet but desperate nervous breakdown. If unemployment and enforced idleness are scourges, employment doesn’t seem to be much fun either. Last May Spa! magazine quoted an expert in the field as maintaining that fully 80 percent of salaried employees are at risk of, if not actually suffering from, clinical depression. Last month the weekly Aera pinpointed a new syndrome it calls “June illness.”

“Adaptation disease” is another name for it. Why June? New jobs and transfers to new positions generally happen in April. By June the amiable introductory phase is over and the real work begins. “Ms. A,” 32, is a computer engineer whose new job, she is starting to realize, is too much for her. She’s at her post first thing in the morning, and rides the last train home at night. She has lost her appetite. Though exhausted, she can’t sleep. She gets out of bed in the morning dreading the day ahead. She can’t say anything to her boss — it would be as good as an admission of incompetence. Can she hold out until summer vacation? If she grits her teeth, she tells herself, maybe. But the real question is, Can she hold out until retirement? And when will that be? At age 80?

Parent or child, working or not, happiness seems far, anguish near. “Ms. C,” after finishing college, found nothing on the job market that met her intellectual standards. She did help with the housework, her father tells Shukan Post, but was otherwise idle. At 30 she married, but “her husband’s salary was small and couldn’t support her in the style she’d grown used to at home.” Within a year she divorced and moved back with her parents. Now 35, “she sits around the house watching South Korean soap operas. It doesn’t look like she’ll be remarrying. Is she going to spend the rest of her life with us?” Her father is 67 and runs his own company. Will he have to work forever? Will he be able to? His daughter doesn’t seem worried, but “I have such anxieties about the future I can’t stand it any more.”

  • Shimonaka

    My country is filled with worry warts like myself. We project decades ahead, and imagine the one million things that could go wrong. Perhaps if we worried less and just lived, lived by our instincts more (more soul in our decisions), we’d not become depressive and suicidal. The problem lies with each of us, and the daily decisions we make.

  • Brian Southwick

    A bit simplistic, Shimonaka. Plenty to worry about out there. I am the father of three, and let me assure you that on my pay packet, school expenses and juku fees, to name but two of the costs associated with child-rearing, are difficult to meet. My Japanese wife contributes what she can from her temoprary jobs, but even with her salary, we live month by month. No living decades ahead of today for us- we are pre-occupied with making ends meet, as are many people I know, Japanese and expat alike.

  • Joel

    The big problem that I’ve seen is that the working conditions in Japan are soo bad. I’ve heard of lots of people to whom working 10+ hours a day, six days a week is expected, with poor pay & no overtime pay, no wonder people don’t want to work! It would also open up more job opportunities if people worked less hours.

  • Richard Hung

    These parents raised classical narcissists. They are eternal children. This is what happens when a child is excessively spoiled and doted on. The same thing happened to my older brother. Now he is forever a burden to our parents as he sucks the joy out of what should be they’re golden years.