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Rose-tinted views of elderly workers’ plight

by Philip Brasor

Contributing Writer

The media has been conscientious in its coverage of the need for foreign workers in Japan. A May 20 NHK Special was particularly thorough in its portrayal of Mimasaka, Okayama Prefecture, which is encouraging Vietnamese laborers to move to the city. Several news outlets have covered Mimasaka’s statue of former Vietnamese President Ho Chi Minh, which was presented to the city by Hanoi last November at the request of Mimasaka’s mayor.

The special also looked at older workers. According to NHK, 12.4 percent of the workforce is over 65 at present, and many of these people are doing manual work, often for the first time in their lives. In Mimasaka, 40 percent of all workers are over 65.

It’s obvious that more older people are either forgoing retirement or reentering the workforce afterward. In many cases, these elderly workers need the money because basic national pensions are not enough to get by on, but a popular media narrative is that these people are going back to work because they are bored with retired life or think that society needs them.

This narrative was the theme of a recent two-hour Kansai TV drama, “68-sai no Shinnyu Shain” (“The 68-year-old New Employee”), about a former manager, Kazuo Niimoto (Masao Kusakari), who, eight years into his retirement, is talked into returning to his old employer, a medium-sized confectionery maker, by the company’s younger president. The drama wears its topicality like a badge and steers the conversation toward areas that have little to do with economics. It’s mainly about being able to contribute and fulfill your desire to stay relevant.

Such an image was discussed on NHK’s news program “Shutoken Joho Neta Dori,” which doubled down on the cliche that senior workers “have a lot of experience-based wisdom to stimulate the workplace,” as the show’s announcer put it. In 2017, there were 8 million workers aged over 65, and for the most part all were making significantly less money than they did when they were younger, usually because they retired from their old jobs and were then hired as “new employees.” When the program provided examples, however, all of the men featured had retired with sufficient company pensions and savings and just wanted something to do.

Sometimes, there was a happy match between the needs of the worker and the needs of the employer, as in the case of one 70-year-old man who works part-time for a package delivery company servicing the large apartment complex where he lives. He only makes about ¥3,000 a day, but, because he makes deliveries by bicycle, he gets needed exercise and stays in close contact with his neighbors. In turn, the company doesn’t have to worry about delivery personnel going back to the complex for re-deliveries, since the on-site courier can keep undelivered packages at his home and re-deliver them at his leisure. In another segment, an over-70s telemarketer for an insurance company is shown to have the best sales record because, as someone who has taken out supplemental insurance himself, he can persuasively explain the benefits of such a product.

NHK did not avoid the fact that a good many retired people don’t want to go back to work and if they do it’s because their pensions and savings are insufficient. For the most part, however, the show dealt with the psychological dimensions of the growing senior labor market, and examined how reentering a workforce that is different from the one elderly workers once knew presents unique challenges in terms of human relations.

In the KTV drama, Niimoto gladly returns to his old company but is discouraged to discover he’s starting at the bottom in a sales team whose job is to come up with ideas for a new business: inexpensive trinkets and toys. Niimoto’s boss is Mayuko Kudo (Mitsuki Takahata), a 28-year-old who worked herself up from office clerk to section head due to her imagination. Her rapid ascent, however, has made her the target of office bullying, thus putting greater pressure on her to achieve results right away. At first she expresses impatience at being forced to train a guy who is older than her father.

No worries there. Thanks to his wife’s advice, Niimoto resists reverting to his salaryman mindset and adapts to being an underling, which leads to running jokes about tablet PCs and getting the hang of the office lingo of a new generation. One of the topics covered on NHK’s “Shutoken Joho Neta Dori” program was how older people have trouble communicating with younger co-workers, especially if the younger colleagues occupy higher positions. It seems to be a common problem, and would have made for an intriguing theme, but for some reason the drama’s writers hardly touched it.

Instead, the conflicts all fell on Kudo, with Niimoto simply being on hand to help alleviate them — not so much with his experience-based wisdom but his selfless willingness to be a subordinate. If there was a message to the story, it’s that today’s young workers, due to changes in workplace dynamics and attitudes toward human resources, carry a heavier burden than their elders did when they were the same age. But the show didn’t illustrate this burden in a convincing way. Kudo’s problems were caused by envious, sexist superiors — cartoon villains who smirked too much and spoke in witheringly condescending tones.

There was no burden on Niimoto, unless you count the usual existential ones like closer proximity to mortality. Even without his token wage, he and his wife lived quite comfortably, thus indicating another lost opportunity. It would have been more revealing, and certainly more dramatically compelling, if the 68-year-old in “68-sai no Shinnyu Shain” really needed the job, but that isn’t what the media, in thrall to the zeitgeist, is selling.

The government actively wants more older people to work, and those in financial straits are already working anyway. It’s those who don’t need the money who have to be flattered into coming back on the payroll.