Business

Signs of graying Japan: pensioners in the gym and a shortage of denture experts

by Keiko Ujikane

Bloomberg

As graying takes hold in Japan, the changes it brings go far deeper than the impact on social welfare and the labor force.

Gym membership among pensioners is surging, for example, even as 20-somethings drop out.

Many of those same young people are losing interest in donating blood, too, yet there is a spike in the need for it among the elderly. Add to this a looming shortage of denture technicians and a grim, lopsided picture emerges.

For individuals and societies, aging isn’t easy.

Already more than a quarter of Japan’s population is 65 or over. As people live longer, with a life expectancy of 81 for men and 87 for women, they’re becoming increasingly conscious about looking after their health. About 60 percent of people who are 65 and older do some kind of exercise to stay in shape, according to a 2014 survey by the health ministry, which is higher than the ratios in younger age groups.

While the numbers are still small, more pensioners are also venturing into video-game arcades, traditionally the haunts of younger men. That is some consolation for these businesses, given that the sector is in decline amid the proliferation of smartphones and personal computers that offer new, often portable gaming opportunities .

Demand for dentures will keep increasing as the population ages, but fewer young people want to join the ranks of the dental technicians who make them. Over the next decade, as the generation of technicians who are 50 and over retire, Japan may be hard pressed to keep up with demand for dentures. Only about 12 percent of technicians are currently 29 or younger, according to a health ministry report.

Demand for blood will remain high, particularly among the elderly undergoing surgery, yet the pool of young people who can give blood is bound to gradually shrink as the population ages and shrinks. A health ministry survey also found a growing number of young people avoid the blood bank, because they think needles are too painful. More than 80 percent of blood transfusion recipients are 50 or above.

Amid all this, many small businesses are shutting down nationwide, simply because their owners have no successor to pass the reins to when they retire.

The number of companies that were closed last year reached almost 24,000, which is about triple the number that went bankrupt, according to corporate researcher Teikoku Databank. Many small-business owners who were born in the years after WWII are retiring and their heirs or offspring would simply rather do something else.