Suppose we are now in the year 2035. Which of the two cases do you want for yourself?
The case of Dai — Dai is an active and happy person whose age is not known and not an issue. Dai is not young, probably around 70 or so. He has had a few jobs and now belongs to multiple communities. He is connected with others by a variety of means, but not always connected. Dai has his own space.
Dai has had a variety of experiences — both real and virtual. He has traveled quite extensively in Ethiopia and Congo in Africa as well as Nordic countries. He has spent some time in Latin America as well.
How does he introduce himself when meeting someone for the first time? He gives his name, Dai, and shares exciting (and some horror) stories of his jobs and travels in Africa and North America. As he has worked at several companies and is now freelancing, his name card (he still has a paper version!) bears his name and contact info such as website and mobile phone number. If you go to his website, you can see what kind of person he is and what skills and expertise he has.
The case of Sho — Sho left his company almost a decade ago after working there for four decades. He is now in his early 70s and lives alone. He married but divorced and has since remained single. He worked very hard for the company and, after leaving when he hit the retirement age, feels a bit lost as he does not have a network of people or communities.
When he was still working, he took the same train at the same time every morning, went to the office, worked with the same group of people, went to lunch with the people he worked with, at one of the restaurants they knew and liked.
He has not traveled much except for business, and feels that he is ready for travel now that he has free time. He does not know, however, where to go, the people he wants to travel with or what he wants to do. In retirement, his days run on, each pretty much the same as the one before.
It is easy to focus our attention on work and family for the short term and close proximity. We tend to think of three-year plans, or map out a decadelong career and/or lifestyle plan. Even though technology enables us to transcend space and time, it is difficult for us to visualize ourselves more than two decades out. We often hear that Japan is a “super-aging society” which gives us a long time to try many more things, but we tend to forget that we all age. It is somebody else’s problem. We try not to think of what will happen when we hit retirement age and start living on savings and pension.
We assume we will stay healthy for a long time. Thus, when we get sick, lose some ability to move or act quickly and/or face the reality of our parents needing care, we are caught by surprise and “react” to cope with the situation.
What can we do to enable many people to pursue a life like Dai’s? Do we ask the government to overhaul the pension system, change the law to continue employment after 65, and/or subsidize re-education programs? Do we try to hang on to the company after retirement age regardless of pay?
To spend a life like Dai, we need some planning. We need to take care of our health by exercising, eating well, and keeping our mind fresh and stimulated. We need to realize that companies will not be able to keep us on for a long time beyond retirement age. We need to develop skills so we can maintain some value in the market and continue making a living.
Aging is not a recent phenomenon. For decades, we have known that Japan is aging quickly. Why has it not been instilled in our minds? Is it the fault of the government? Is it the fault of the company that has painted the picture of lifetime employment and yet made almost no effort to “re-skill” people after they hit a certain age? Do we willingly believe that our life still follows the three-stage process of learn-work-retire — with a fixed age range set for each stage? Do we avoid the reality that many of us can have almost two decades after we retire from the company, simply because the social system and institutional arrangement assumes that three-stage process still holds?
It is time for us to wake up. It is time for us to face the facts and start doing something about it.
Who is it that faces the reality of aging? It is us! We are the main characters of the story. The government may design the stage, but we are the ones who dance on that stage. Companies may renew the show with a completely new cast rather than sticking to the old stars.
I recommend that we take ownership of the problem of aging, and design our own roles. The “Society 5.0” the government proposes as a “super smart society” sounds good, but what does it mean for us? The government and businesses are expected to collaborate in applying technology to transform Japan smoothly into this smart society. However, their plans appear so abstract and removed from the life of individuals that it’s hard to imagine the specific picture of myself at age 75. Do we wait for them to develop programs from individual, personal perspectives?
Aging is everybody’s issue and not just for the elderly. We need to take a proactive role in shaping our own life. It requires time and energy to maintain health and wellness, and a sharp mind with updated knowledge and skills. Building relationships with a variety of people and being engaged in different communities takes time and trial and error. You cannot join community meetings and act like a VIP, because you are not. Here are specific recommendations:
Seeing is believing. Find out how the elderly live. If you have elderly people around you, spend some time with them (not just one visit a year!). Monitor how their capabilities and lifestyles change. My 95-year-old father used to walk so fast that nobody could keep up with him. In a few years, he went from cane to walker. It is good he can still walk with it.
Focus on some key capabilities that you want to maintain and pursue. If it is health and wellness, start exercising now. If your passion is reading and writing, start now using digital devices (for your eyesight). If you want to structure your day, try smart speakers to get into the rhythm. Develop your IT literacy so you can keep your health and medical data yourself to track your health experience.
Start now. Visualize a happy life two decades from now and act to make it a reality. It is your life after all. Are you ready?
Yoko Ishikura is a professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University and serves as an independent consultant in the area of global strategy, competitiveness and global talent. She is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Future Council.