Japan’s seniors still showing up for work to stay flush, keep fit



Although many people his age would be happy to slip on a cardigan and put their feet up after retirement, Teruo Sugiura feels otherwise.

The 86-year-old makes his way to a seniors’ work center in Tokyo several days a week, where he repairs traditional Japanese sliding doors.

It doesn’t pay much, but that hasn’t stopped Sugiura from turning up for the last 20 years. He’s one of millions of elderly Japanese still collecting wages well into official retirement.

“I’m working to keep my body in good shape,” said Sugiura, a former sweets salesman at a high-end department store.

“I think it’s wrong not to be doing anything. There’s no point staying at home twiddling my thumbs.”

Japan’s silver-haired workforce is everywhere these days — from weather-worn men waving glow sticks at construction sites to checkout counter clerks or caregivers for those even older than themselves.

And this geriatric working class shows no sign of shrinking — more than 20 percent of Japanese older than 65 still work in some way.

That is the highest proportion among developed economies and a figure likely to soar as the pool of younger workers falls and the fast-aging population squeezes a strained social welfare system.

People over 65 are expected to account for nearly 40 percent of the graying population by 2060 as Japan wrestles with a low birth rate.

Meanwhile, the country’s labor force — the number of employed and unemployed people aged 15 to 64 — is at risk of losing more than 27 million workers in the same time frame, a drop of about 42 percent from current levels, according to a government advisory panel.

Demand for workers is high and Japan’s unemployment rate for January, published on Tuesday, was an enviable 3.2 percent, a two-decade low and well below the United States or many European nations.

In response to demographic shifts, the government is gradually raising the official retirement age and starting ages for state pension payments to 65. The official retirement age will be raised in steps from 61 to 65 by 2025. It will be raised to 62 next month.

“This is enough incentive for (seniors) to push back their retirement and keep working,” investment bank Goldman Sachs said in a recent report on Japan’s labor market.

And Tokyo is putting the pressure on firms to keep workers on longer, or to hire older employees.

Some firms have responded, including automaker Honda, which has said it would raise its working age by five years to 65 starting in April, a move that could affect tens of thousands of workers.

Meanwhile, in northern Japan, nationwide convenience store chain Circle K Sunkus has trained a handful of elderly people in a nod to the aging labor pool.

Electronics giant Ricoh has also called on retired technicians to get its computers ready to be installed at companies, schools and government departments.

“There is very strong market pressure for employers to keep older people,” said Atsushi Seike, a professor of labor economics and president of Keio University in Tokyo.

“The drastic decline of the workforce will have a significant impact on the behavior of employers.

“Many are willing to boost the number of older workers, even at major companies, and I think this trend will continue — or even accelerate — in the future.”

More than half a million older Japanese find work through the government-subsidized National Silver Human Resources Center Association, including door repairman Sugiura and 63-year-old Junko Kondo.

Kondo’s government pension isn’t enough to let her do everything she wants.

“I’m saving the money I make here,” Kondo says, as she assembles packages for wrapping up high-quality salt sold at luxury stores.

“I’ll use it to buy presents for my grandchildren, or a sweater, or maybe just lunch for myself.”

The reasons for Japan’s elderly staying in the workforce vary, but keeping mentally and physically fit is key for many people.

It also puts some extra money in seniors’ pockets, although the wages paid by the Silver Centers are low — they pay an average of ¥37,000 a month.

Some seniors only get paid per task they complete, while others volunteer their time without getting paid.

But for people like Taeko Mishima, the extra money could be a lifesaver.

The 74-year-old worries she and her husband’s pensions are not enough to cover the cost of nursing homes with medical care, which could add up to as much ¥300,000 a month, said Mishima, who formerly worked at a travel agency.

“My pension isn’t high enough to pay for that.”