National / Social Issues

State panel to brainstorm lifestyle solutions for Japan's demographic ills

• Panel seeks cures for demographic ills • Labor, education top list of problems • Work-style reform said key to growth

by Noriyuki Suzuki

Kyodo

Japan is waking up to the need to think outside the box to tackle a spate of economic and social challenges posed by its declining birthrate and aging society.

In one scenario, married couples no longer need to think twice about having children because education and day care services for preschoolers are free and students can start paying college tuition once they build their careers.

In another, lifetime employment and excessive working hours are no longer characteristics of this country. More people feel positive about changing jobs and choosing the working styles that suit them best.

These are only a couple of the scenarios that could come true for Japan, depending on the outcome of several months of future-oriented discussion to be launched Monday by a government panel tasked with charting a new course for Japan.

“We intend to create a big policy design to build an economic and social system looking toward an era when people will live to 100,” Economic and Fiscal Policy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi said recently as he announced the panel members.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made human resources development part his agenda as he battles slumping public support for his Cabinet and the worst labor shortage in more than four decades.

Education will likely dominate the panel’s discussions as the government aims to offer free education and day care services for preschoolers. Another idea is to make higher education more accessible by easing families’ worries about the financial burden while students attend college.

Despite the multiple funding options being floated, however, finding an agreeable one is seen as a formidable task, given that Japan’s fiscal health is the worst among the major developed economies.

Since his return to office in 2012, Abe has been calling for better use of human resources through such slogans as “a society where women can shine” and “the dynamic engagement of all citizens.”

Female participation in the workforce has been on the rise but Abe has yet to achieve his stated goal of eliminating nursery school waiting lists for children, which has been pushed back a few years to the end of fiscal 2020.

Some policymakers and economists have voiced concern about the prospect of a tight labor market sapping economic growth.

Koya Miyamae, senior economist at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc., said reducing the financial burden of sending preschoolers to kindergartens and day care facilities will help Japan cope with the labor shortage by encouraging mothers to work.

“In terms of higher education, if people spend more time in education, they will enter the workforce later, so the risk is that this would worsen the labor shortage over the longer term,” Miyamae said.

Another focal point is recurrent education, or lifelong learning, in a country that ranks second in the global longevity rankings for both men and women.

Increased participation in recurrent education may result in more workers changing jobs, economists say, though it is expected to take time to gauge its broader impact on the economy.

The government picked 13 panel members from various backgrounds and age brackets, including Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School and the author of “The 100-Year Life: Living and Working in an Age of Longevity.”

Abe has said he is willing to promote lifelong learning to create a society where “people can learn and try something new regardless of age.”

Data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development show that adult participation in education and training is relatively low in Japan. The share of adults between 25 and 64 participating in education stood at 42 percent in 2012, below the OECD average of 50 percent.

After their meetings, the panel is expected to compile an interim report by year’s end, when the fiscal 2018 state budget will be compiled.

To sustain the economic momentum logged in recent quarters and improve productivity, this drive for fostering people should be accompanied by work-style reforms on various levels, economists say.

The Mitsubishi Research Institute, for instance, recently proposed a scheme under which people working in urban areas would spend a few days a week telecommuting from the countryside.

The initiative is billed as a reversal of a well-known practice designed to strengthen central government control during the Edo Period (1603-1867). Back then, feudal lords in regional outposts were ordered by the Tokugawa shogunate to visit Tokyo on a regular basis.

“Only one company or one local entity joining the initiative won’t do,” Tomoo Matsuda, research director at the think tank, said at a seminar attended by around 180 people from companies and government offices.

The hope is that some of the estimated 10 million workers at major companies in the Tokyo and Osaka metropolitan areas will take a different look at their lifestyles and help reinvigorate regional economies, Matsuda said.

“There are still many difficulties to overcome but it could create big waves in society,” Matsuda said. “What matters is how you want to live your life.”