Many pundits agree that the most important challenge Japan faces is how to deal with the problem of falling birthrates and an aging population. Among direct, specific proposals for solving the problem are measures to increase birthrates and reform the pension and medical-care systems.

However, government programs alone are not enough to tackle this challenge. All of society must adapt to the situation. In this respect, changing Japanese ideas about the human life cycle is essential.

Japan’s present social system seems based on ideas established from the 1960s to the early 1970s. In those days, Japan’s life expectancy was about 70 years, and its birthrate had decreased to about 2.0 children per woman, which would have kept the national population more or less fixed.

A typical Japanese couple who got married in those days had two or three children. New graduates recruited by government agencies and companies worked to a retirement age of somewhere between 50 and 60. After they retired, they lived mostly on pensions. Thus the Japanese-style lifelong employment system became established.

But the typical Japanese life cycle has dramatically changed since then. The nation’s birthrate has declined sharply to one of the world’s lowest. Average life expectancy has increased to 78 for males and 85 for females.

Today, an increasing number of new graduates avoid full-time employment, working part-time or joining the ranks of those “not in employment, education or training” (NEETs). Many new recruits who immediately obtain full-time employment — 70 percent of middle school graduates, 50 percent of high school graduates and 30 percent of college graduates — leave in less than three years.

Meanwhile, people are delaying or avoiding marriage. Seventy percent of men in their late 20s and more than half of women of the same age are unmarried. Salaried workers who retire at age 60 can expect to live 20 more years on average; some up to 40 more years. So it is only natural that the social system based on old assumptions about the life cycle has become unsustainable.

I believe that the Japanese social system should be defined by a life cycle of three periods of 35 years each: Young, middle age and old. This would cover almost all Japanese, except for those living beyond 105.

The “young” period basically should involve education — the first half at home and school. Those in the second half of this bracket (late 20s to early 30s) should receive higher education at universities and graduate schools, even while working.

Before the young period ends, people should have decided on their jobs or professions. Employers should change their traditional employment practice of favoring new graduates over experienced workers by hiring both types in a balanced way.

To boost falling birthrates, the government should give subsidies to couples who choose to get married and have children during the young period, when it can be particularly difficult to make ends meet.

The “middle-age” period of 35 to 70 should be treated as the working core element of society. In this period many parents are burdened with high costs of educating their children and caring for their own parents. In the present situation, 60 years old is too early to retire; the standard retirement age should be extended to 70.

People in the first and second halves of the middle-age period may have different styles of working. In the first half, most people are physically and mentally fit enough to work hard, but that’s not necessarily true with the second half, when wisdom and judgment will be important.

Workers’ salaries could be cut gradually after a certain age, with part of the older workers’ salaries made up with advance payments on their retirement pay. This system should not unduly burden employers’ finances.

People over 70 should gradually retire. Nevertheless, those in the first half of the over-70 bracket who remain healthy could contribute to society to the extent that they are able through work, hobbies and care for their grandchildren. Medical care for the aged should put more emphasis on maintaining health rather than on only prolonging lives.

Unless new assumptions about the life cycle take hold, it will be hard for society to overcome the problem of falling birthrates and an aging population.

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