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As Respect for the Aged Day nears, there is an uptick in the advertisements of gifts for older people and care center promotions. The traditional way to celebrate the day is to appreciate longevity and to ensure that older adults are well cared for. But with COVID-19, face-to-face contacts with older people who are considered more vulnerable to the virus have been restricted to avoid outbreaks, especially those in nursing homes.

As Japan is one of the fastest aging countries with the second-longest life expectancy in the world, this approach makes sense. In addition, over the past few years, a variety of initiatives and policy changes have been discussed, such as extending the retirement age at companies and other entities to 70, for example, as well as having such people start receiving pensions later in order to accommodate a 100-year life, which is quickly becoming a reality in Japan.

What I advocate is quite different from these approaches and actions. COVID-19 has brought about many changes in how we live, and I think it could trigger changes to traditional approaches and roles for older people. Specifically, I think that older adults can play a different role in the overdue transformation of Japan.

It is time for such older persons to step back and shift their focus and concentrate on “their own lives,” and not try to guide society according to conventional formulas of the past. In other words, they should support and help realize a complete makeover of society by letting people who will live in the next era take the reins of leadership.

COVID-19 is a historic event that has affected people throughout the world. Judging from media reports and other information outlets in Japan, there is an awareness that it is historic indeed, and, yet, when it comes to a sense of urgency and a strong push for solutions and taking action, I see a very lukewarm response across the nation.

What I am afraid of is that we will gloss over the crisis, recognizing it as a significant, but not as an earth-shattering event that forces us to reexamine our values and lifestyles.

If an effective vaccine is found and distributed to the majority of Japanese, the perception this event was a historic game changer may wane. It may result in few drastic actions being taken, such as a complete overhaul of how we educate, train and develop people.

What I advocate is that we should re-examine our way of thinking and of doing things, and to let people who still have a long life ahead of them take over. Conventional solutions and ways of thinking will not work. It will be a waste of time to try and apply modified versions of solutions that have worked in the past. It is not only traditional ideas and solutions that need to change, but the people in charge need to be replaced as it is difficult for such experienced persons to make a clean break from from what has worked for them in the past. Besides, those in leadership positions today (mainly in the 50s and older) are not going to be around very much longer — just a few decades — even as 100-year lifespans become the norm in Japan.

In regard to my suggested fixes, I expect there to be concerns and even some push-back from those in leadership positions. Whenever I suggest a need for drastic change and for the younger generations to lead the transformation effort, I often hear from those in such leadership positions today that they — the young — are the ones that do not see a need for change and do not have the will or skill to see one through.

In fact, research by the Cabinet Office comparing youth in different countries in 2019 showed that Japan’s younger people scored lower in terms of their involvement in activities aimed at addressing broad social issues such as climate change. Though their level of interest in such global issues was on par with with their peers in other countries, the willingness to take action and do something about such concerns was much lower in Japan, serving as evidence that there really is a lack of energy among the nation’s youth to promote change.

So I see their point. Still, the only way that young people will learn how to survive in the upcoming era — with its many uncertainties and disruptions to traditional values — is by giving them the opportunity to try and come up with solutions themselves.

COVID-19 has revealed many hidden aspects of global society at large, one of which is the sharp difference in the fundamental mentality regarding independent and individual thinking and judgment between Japan and some other advanced countries in the West.

For example, mask wearing and the voluntary restraint by most people of partaking in activities that are believed to help spread the coronavirus have prevailed in Japan, which are thought to be possible reasons for the low infection rate and the absence of a surge so far. It is good that people follow instructions even when they are not threatened with penalties. What I wonder, though, is whether the Japanese are actually thinking about the benefits of their efforts and consciously deciding to take action — or are they simply following instructions.

I notice there is a tendency among people to shy away from judging and making decisions about their own lives while criticizing others who do not share their views — almost forcing, in a sense, their own ideas upon others without making an effort to explore their individual needs and views. People tend not to face their own issues while keeping themselves busy by pretending to deal with larger issues involving others.

It almost looks as if many of us want to serve as curators of information and views, and, at the same time, are willing to be curated, without doing any real deep thinking.

As I have mentioned on several occasions, I think COVID-19 is a great opportunity to transform the economy, society and variety of outdated systems in Japan that have long been discussed and debated with little to show for.

Rather than criticizing the youth for a lack of energy, we (and as a member of the baby boomer generation, I believe I am qualified to use the term “we”) should try to help energize them and boost their interest level in social issues and a empowering them to take action.

I think older people who are in positions of leadership, whether they are at schools, companies or at homes, need to change how they interact with the younger generations.

Where should they start? They should stop assuming the solutions they are familiar with always apply and work. They should be willing to observe and listen to what the younger generations are saying and doing. They should also shut up and step back when they see younger people struggling through issues. They can ask questions and listen, but should not impose or dictate solutions.

After all, older generations are not going to be around for much longer, but the younger generations still have to survive further into the future. Let them decide what kind of society they want to design. Let them struggle through with mistakes and figure out how to develop solutions. If they fail, they are responsible for the failures. They need to bear the consequences.

It is time for older adults and leaders in Japan to show a new approach and model to address the aging society.

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.

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