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Seeking eternal youth in an aging society


Here’s an idea: we all retire at 40.

Not “retire” exactly, in the current sense of the word. Let’s say at 40, we withdraw temporarily from the salaried grind and — fantastic thought! — go back to school, upgrade or deepen our knowledge and skills, then hit the job market again. You could do the same thing again at 60; maybe even at 75 or 80. Why not? Life is longer than ever, and infirmity is no longer an inevitable concomitant of advanced years.

This is not starry-eyed futurism. It’s the gist of a report issued last month by a government panel. The report is titled “A Japan With Hope and Pride.”

“Stretch the envelope,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda reportedly instructed the panel. A sense of urgency informed the deliberations. “If we don’t do something, Japan will tumble downhill,” is how panelist Noriyuki Yanagawa, a University of Tokyo professor, put it to Shukan Asahi magazine.

The report envisions hiring and employment arrangements radically different from those we know. University graduates would be hired not for life but on 10-year or 20-year contracts, renewable or terminable as the parties see fit. The idea is that it gives both employee and employer a sense of perpetual renewal. Youth wouldn’t end at 20, nor old age begin with obligatory retirement at 60. Go back to school at 40 and you’re a kid again. Start a third career at 60 or 70 and death no longer seems just around the corner.

So far, says Shukan Asahi, the report seems to have aroused more anxiety, if not horror, than hope. What? Give up a steady income — if you’re lucky enough to have one — at 40? With kids to raise, elderly parents to care for, a mortgage to pay off?

“As society stands now” it would be difficult, Yanagawa concedes. He envisions a future society where that sort of choice “will be natural.” How far down the road is that? 2050, he figures.

The fact is, society will change itself regardless of what the government does or fails to do. Demographics will see to that. By 2050 Japan’s population, now 127.55 million, will have fallen to 90 million, and 40 percent of it will be 65 or over. The number of births per year, low now at 1.07 million, will be 560,000 then. That’s a sea change right there.

The report is, in a sense, a formula for eternal youth in an aging society. Youth today, of course, is not the grand adventure it once was. It is rife with anxieties. Last month Shukan Shincho carried an interesting piece by philosopher Osamu Tekina, the point of which is that high school girls nowadays are turning middle-aged way before their time.

Finding himself in Tokyo’s youth-centered Shibuya district with some time to kill, Tekina dropped into a McDonald’s and settled down with an ice coffee. At the next table were three high school girls whose conversation he couldn’t help overhearing. It was about love, but not about theirs. Girls at their school who had boyfriends were stupid, they agreed, because the boys there were all hopeless. The best way to meet someone worth the trouble, they concluded, was to study hard and get into a good university, where, maybe, the standards would be a little higher.

This kind of talk depresses Tekina. How prosaic! How pedestrian! He recalls with nostalgia the kogyaru — the rambunctious, outrageous, loud, brazen, sexually uninhibited high school girls of the 1990s and early 2000s. Where are they now? Melted into a premature adulthood in a society no longer youthful. When they reigned over Shibuya there was no end of hand-wringing about them and their irresponsible ways. Tekina would have been too young then to disapprove. Now 37, he laments the lost youth of a nation, symbolized by the lost youth of Shibuya. Not that people there don’t look young, he says. Quite the contrary. The “anti-aging boom” is everywhere in evidence — in the colorful dress of the girls, in the anime characters dangling from the cell phone straps of men already balding. But “take a closer look,” he says, “and the signs of age” — emotional age, emotional pre-maturity — “cannot be concealed.”

Tekina goes on to contrast the premature maturity of teenagers with the eternal childishness of the national political culture — a subject we can save for another day. Over youth, as he says, hover many shadows, not just the enervating nerdiness of girls’ male classmates. The monthly Takarajima in its July issue features a report on the increasing number of young people doomed to earn no more than ¥1.5 million a year. That’s “working poor.”

The story features a 30-year-old law student whose parents pay his tuition while he holds down two part-time jobs to cover living expenses. So when can he study? He can’t, and has already resigned himself to ending up as a court clerk rather than a lawyer. When he and his friends get together, he says, they avoid talking about the future — it’s too “touchy” a subject. In 2050 they’ll be pushing 70. Will “A Japan With Hope and Pride” come too late for them?