In 2040, when Japan’s population of people 65 or older is expected to near its peak, the number of senior citizen households will increase by 17 percent from 2015 to reach 22.42 million, or 44 percent of the nation’s total households, and 40 percent of those households will have only one member, according to the latest forecast by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research. In addition to the rapid aging of the population, fueling the trend is the growing number of people who remain unmarried or get divorced, as well as an anticipated increase in the number of elderly people who lose their spouses.

The increase in the number of elderly people living alone is forecast to proceed more rapidly than earlier estimates anticipated. Because such people will find it hard to rely on relatives for help in daily life, they will likely turn to medical and social security services such as nursing care, placing greater pressure on them.

The expected further decline in the size of the working age population (ages 15 to 64) — which mainly supports the social security system — and a serious manpower shortage in the care-giving sectors will further strain the system. The forecast should prompt all relevant parties to plan ahead to establish a mechanism to ensure that those elderly people — whose daily contact with their local communities tends to be diminished — can remain healthy and connected with society.

In a report released last month, the institute gave its long-term forecast on the changes in household structures based on the 2015 national census. Due to the accelerating decline of the population, the total number of households across the country is forecast to decline from 53.33 million in 2015 to 50.76 million in 2040, of which 22.42 million will be led by people 65 or older. And of the households led by senior citizens, 8.96 million, a 43 percent increase from 6.25 million in 2015, will have only a single member. It’s estimated that single-member households will account for 40 percent of the total households led by elderly citizens, compared with 32.6 percent in 2015. In 2040, the ratio will be above 30 percent in all of the nation’s 47 prefectures — and above 40 percent in 15 prefectures including Tokyo, where the ratio will be the highest at 45.8 percent.

Single-member elderly households are forecast to account for 17.7 percent of all households in 2040, up from 11.7 percent in 2015. Aside from the concern over who will assist them in their daily lives, the increase in the number of elderly people living alone raises the risk of them encountering economic problems in their advanced age. Today, roughly 90 percent of the elderly people on welfare are believed to live alone. Experts warn of an increase in the number of people who have no children or relatives to turn to for help in tough times.

Irrespective of age, single-member households are on the increase, due to a variety of reasons, including the growing number of people who do not marry. According to the 2015 census, the ratio of people who have not married to the age of 50 stood at 23 percent among men and 14 percent among women. Single-member households are forecast to account for 39.3 percent of the nation’s total households in 2040 — compared with 34.5 percent in 2015 — numbering well above those comprising a couple and children (23.3 percent) and those of a couple alone (21.1 percent). Such a trend is magnified in large urban areas such as Tokyo, where the ratio is estimated to go as high as 48 percent, because of the unabated influx of young people from rural areas and a growing tendency among them to remain single.

As the aging and decline of Japan’s population accelerates, the government is taking steps to increase the number of elderly people in the labor market — partly to make up for a steep fall in the size of the primary working age population and partly to curb the mushrooming increase in social security expenses. That will help ease the economic problems of elderly people still healthy enough to keep working. However, the ratio of the elderly living alone will continue to grow regardless.

The nation’s family and household structures, on which its social norms and systems used to be based, have become diverse due to rapid changes in people’s lifestyles and demography. Efforts need to be launched at the national, municipal and community levels, involving both public and private sector resources, to ensure that elderly people who living alone will remain connected with their communities and society at large.

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