In about 13 years, when the generation born in the first baby-boom period immediately after World War II reaches old age, Japan will become a full-fledged aged society. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the elderly population aged 65 years or over will number 33 million and will account for more than 26 percent of the population. By the middle of the century. this elderly ratio is forecast to reach 36 percent, and Japan will have the most aged population in the world.

This rapid aging of the population will result from a sharp decline in the birthrate, and it will be accompanied by the shrinking of Japan’s population as a whole. After peaking in 2006, the total population will move into a downward trend and decrease by half over the next century. The coincidence of a declining birthrate, aged society and declining population could weaken the country’s economic strength. It could also force changes in the framework of social security, such as pensions and medical expenses.

However, we should not be pessimistic about the dramatic changes that are taking place in the population structure; we should turn our attention to the positive aspects and evaluate them in an affirmative manner.

We should take a second look at the image of the elderly, who until now have been stereotyped as weak members of society in terms of both health and economic position. In fact, the lifestyles and attitudes of the elderly are truly diverse. On average, they are by no means inferior to the active working population in terms of income level and savings, and their home ownership ratio is much higher. Three-quarters of the elderly do not have health problems, and many of them are actually working (40 percent of men, 20 percent of women). According to the government report, a third of all elderly persons prefer to continue working for as long as possible if health permits. More and more elderly persons are displaying a desire and enthusiasm to participate in volunteer activities.

On the reverse side, the number of elderly persons living alone and in need of care is also increasing. About 80 percent of family members who provide most of this care are women. One in three women who provide care, and one in two men, is at least 65 years old. Care continues from morning to night, and in some cases the burden leads to hatred and abuse of those in need of care.

This diversity among the elderly calls for stepping up efforts in a cross-sectional manner to advance solutions. Related issues can be classified into four categories: support for independence in old age so that a variety of lifestyles is possible; a revision of systems and practices that treat the elderly differently just because of their age; a strengthening of intergenerational bonds; and the promotion of elderly people’s participation in the local community.

Specifically, the mandatory retirement age should be raised and a continuous employment system should be introduced so that all people can work until 65 if they so wish. Also needed is the promotion of a system whereby private rental housing that accepts low-income elderly people could be registered with the prefectural governor, with rent arrears guaranteed by organizations designated by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport.

The government white paper is correct in its analysis of the present state of the elderly, the medium- and long-term policy guidelines and directions that it sets, and its explanation of future prospects. The problem is how to raise the practical effectiveness of its proposals, because the situation surrounding aging is becoming increasingly serious.

For example, what should be done about the declining birthrate, which is contributing to the rising average age of the population? As the birthrate continues its free fall, the number of babies is declining dramatically. The number of babies born in 2001 was about 1.17 million, down about 20,000 from the previous year and the lowest ever. The total fertility rate (that is, the average number of babies born to a woman in her lifetime) dropped to 1.33, again setting a new record for the lowest ever. If the birthrate continues at this low level, inevitably the fiscal situation, including public pensions and the health insurance system, will deteriorate because of the shortage of workers.

There is no miracle drug that will boost the birthrate. To begin to deal with this issue, it will be necessary for Japan to set about boldly implementing positive measures to support child-raising, such as the establishment of more day-care centers, the thorough implementation of child-care and nursing-care leave systems, and the adjustment of work and employment practices.

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