Commentary / Japan

The critical importance of staying connected

by Yoko Ishikura

The holiday season (from the end of November through the beginning of the new year) is the time for family. Regardless of where they live, many people return to the place where they grew up to spend time with family. Urban dwellers may go back to their hometowns and stay with their parents and other relatives whom they rarely see during the rest of the year. The year-end holidays (Christmas in particular) are also a big season for the economy. In the United States, half the population goes shopping for gifts and retailers (both online and brick and mortar) make close to 40 percent of their annual sales during this time.

How is it different in Japan? The year-end/new year holidays here are similar to the Christmas holidays in Western countries, whereas Christmas in Japan is perceived more as yet another day for get-togethers and parties. Year-end/new year holidays are the time for young people and families to return home to spend time with parents, siblings and other relatives. It is one of the most significant family holidays.

However, there is also a growing trend among people in Japan not to spend the holiday season with family. While a majority of people still reportedly spend the holiday season with family, an increasing number of younger people spend them with friends or alone.

What lies behind this trend? Japan is among a growing number of advanced economies that are witnessing an increase in the number of single-member households. What I am concerned about is the prospect of people spending the holidays alone.

In 2015, the number of people who lived alone was 18.42 million (or 1 in 7 people), accounting for 14.5 percent of the total population (and 34.5 percent of total households). Since 2010, the number has expanded by 1.64 million, or 9.8 percent, and is growing faster than originally forecast. It’s estimated that the number of single-person households will reach 18.72 million in 2030 — an increase of 1.6 percent from 2015, which might indicate the number itself will not rise so fast.

But a different picture emerges when the number is broken down by age groups. By 2030, the number of single-person households among those in their 20s to 40s will decrease, while the number of single-person households among people in their 50s and older will increase. In 2030, the biggest group of male single-person households will be in their 50s (an increase of 1.3 times over the 2015 figure), while the largest group among female single-member households will be composed of people in their 80s — at 2.56 million, or 1.5 times larger than in 2015.

What factors lie behind the increase from 2015 to 2030? The growth in the number of single-member households of people in their 80s is attributable to the aging of the postwar baby boomers (born right after World War II) and longer life spans.

The reason for the increase in such households of men in their 70s, and of both men and women in their 50s, on the other hand, is a change in lifestyles — specifically the trend of more people remaining single.

This trend is significant and deserves our attention. The ratio of men who have not married by the age of 50 has increased sharply since the 1990s. It reached 23 percent in 2015 and is forecast to hit 28 percent in 2030. The corresponding estimate among women in 2030 is 19 percent, up from 14 percent in 2015.

Several social issues have accompanied the growth in the number of elderly people living alone, including a sharp increase in demand for nursing care (amid an acute shortage of caregivers) and social isolation. Traditionally in Japan there was a strong belief — backed by practice — that family is the major provider of elder care.

People who do not marry or have any children, however, often have no family to depend on. The situation worsens when such people fail to maintain close relationships with friends and neighbors, and don’t engage in social activities.

The financial condition of elderly single-member households does not look good, either. Among elderly single-person households as of 2012, 29 percent of men and 45 percent of women lived under the poverty line because of their low pension income and their low income when they were employed (or their short period of employment). These figures are about twice as high as the average for all elderly households.

So what do such people do to make ends meet? They tend to continue working. Their low rate of saving, dearth of assets and lack of planning for post-retirement life does not help either.

With the growing ranks of the elderly in Japan’s population and the rising tendency among even younger people to spend the holiday season alone, it is time to address the issue and take action. To this end, the government should do more to provide elderly people with new skills. Japan is suffering from a severe manpower shortage and the government (and businesses) have taken several measures, such as implementing robots and other advanced technologies to cope with the labor crunch, as well as opening the door wider to foreign workers.

Government policies for the elderly tend to focus on promoting social activities and designing local communities so elderly people will not feel isolated. Senior citizens should also be included in the effort to resolve the labor shortage. What they need are new skills that enable them to work, no matter how simplistic such skills may be. With the help of technology that enables the online training of simple skills and remote work possibilities, we should focus on encouraging the elderly to become more independent. The best way is for them to learn something new and apply it to work so that they can have contact with others, earn money and feel that they have a place where they belong.

Preparing for what has been touted as the “100-year life” is not a task for elderly people or the government alone. Each one of us (in particular, younger people) needs to simulate how life in our 50s and onward will look if we do not act now. Social contacts and networks cannot be built in a day. Lifelong learning can start at any time regardless of age. Do not get caught by surprises at the age of 65 when you realize that you have few skills and few networks to build your life on. If you spend the holidays alone, it may be a good time to start redesigning your life.

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 Expert Network.