Patrick Eng
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Week 15 - Everything I Needed to Know About the Declining Young (and Growing Elderly) Population in Japan


In the five year span between Japan's 2010 and 2015 census, the population has decreased by almost one million. This decline shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone though, as other birth and death rate data has been showing a clear trend towards a declining population.

For all of us who finished first-grade math, it should be pretty self-explanatory that a couple needs to have two kids so that the population remains stable. In Japan's case, however, the birth rate is at 1.4 children per couple.

On top of declining population, Japan also has a growing aged population, with ⅓ of their current population above the age of 65. To put that into perspective, only 13% of the American population was 65 or older at this same time. Jump ahead to 2050, and experts predict that Japan's 65 and older age group will be 40% of their entire population.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is attempting to ensure that Japan's population remains above 100 million, but population estimates are looking bad - potentially showing a drop below the 100 million threshold in the mid 21st century. Fast forward to the end of the century, and Japan's population will have decreased by over 30%.

Japan isn't an anomaly though. The UN is predicting that almost 50 countries will have a declining population by 2050, with the most dramatic shift happening in the country of Moldova. The main difference though is that Japan is one of the world's strongest economies. And with a dwindling young population, we'll have to see what repercussions the world will have to deal within the next 30 or so years.

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The classic argument for Japan's declining population has two sides:

  1. Young people not having enough sex

  2. Women are putting their career before having a family

But what if it was more complicated than that? Japan still resides in a very traditional mindset, where men bring home money and women raise the family. The issue that seems to pervade this young population though isn't one of social justice or patriotism, but of simple economics. Young Japanese men can't seem to find stable jobs, and thus can't afford to have a family.

For decades, Japan's workforce operated with the mindset of working hard gives you good pay, good benefits, and a dependable retirement. Now, 40% of the workforce is patching together odd jobs with low salaries and no benefits.

This shift in temporary workers, or freeters, began due to revised labor laws in the 90's that enabled wider adoption of temporary or contract workers. This trend was then solidified as companies began to cut costs and continue to just hire more temporary workers.

As you can see, this becomes a big issue in a culture where men are seen as the breadwinners, and if they can't provide, are seen as failures. Not only does temporary work drive away any desired relationship, it would also just be forbidden by the parents. The pervading idea is that in order to be happy and find a spouse, one first needs to have a stable job.

The lack of well-paying jobs and successful men has led to an increase in "net-cafe refugees" - people who eat and sleep in a cubicle in an internet cafe. These net-cafe refugees sleep in cubicles because it is the only living space they are able to afford after they pay off their other monthly expenses like tuition and social security.

The increase in temporary work has also shifted company mindset's to "you [the employee] should be thankful you have a stable job. So work even harder and don't complain."

Temporary work has almost become a threat to full-time workers who have stable jobs, and has brought with it such a mentality of overworking that they had to make a word just to signify "death by overwork", or karoshi.

Besides Japan's deep philosophical association between success and regular employment, it also just doesn't see an issue with working long hours, and even considers it rude to leave before your boss.

Overall, the Japanese government doesn't seem to be doing much in terms of improving working conditions, at least to any real degree. While some argue that there isn't something necessarily bad with declining population, the issue still stands that Japan's economy is going to shift, because if it doesn't, it will most likely collapse. But I've also never taken an economy class, so what the hell do I know about how this all works.

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The crisis in Japan?

A growing aged population and shrinking young population.

While this twin phenomenon might seem like it's isolated to Japan, it's actually a problem that will be faced by the global community in the next 30 or so years. People are living longer around the world and have fewer kids. And while Japan is an extreme version of that shift, it is not alone.

Japan is also a close economic ally of the United States, meaning the resolution of this problem has a strong impact on the United States.

A Declining Population

As we've seen, Japan's population is declining because it is below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman, averaging at around 1.4 instead. Since two people tend to have kids, or in Japan's case, only one of the parents are being replaced once they retire.

A Declining Birth Rate

There are a number of reasons that Japan is seeing this steady population decline. The main four seem to be:

  1. Women marrying later

  2. Growing opportunities for women in the workplace

  3. A general aversion to having a family over the recent decades

  4. Marriage still is seen as the only acceptable way to have kids

Like we still see in many parts of the world, men are expected to bring in the money, and women are expected to raise children and take care of the home. But Japan is finding out what happens when women want to work and men can't even bring home enough money for themselves.

The Cold, Hard Numbers

In terms of just straight population forecasts, Japan seems to have peaked in 2015 with almost 130 million people and will dip to just above 107 million by 2050.

For those who can't do third-grade math, that's a drop in almost 20 million people over the span of 35 years.

Not only will that population be steadily decreasing, it will also be getting much older. For example, in 2015, 33% of Japan's population was above the age of 65. Jump ahead to 2050, and now 42% of Japan's population is above 65. This is a double whammy too since the growing older population would need a bigger young population to take care of it.

When it comes to birth rate, the next 30 years isn't looking too bright either. By 2050, it's expected that the average childbearing woman will have 1.69 children. So, as it continues to remain below the replacement rate, the overall issue will keep persisting.

We can see that growing aged populating staying steady too just from that prediction that average life expectancy is expected to increase by 9 years between now and 2050, from 84 to 93. While this is generally seen as a good thing, there is usually a growing young population that comes along with it that can work to support it.

Political Ripples

As the elderly are hit with monetary and familial struggles (we'll cover this next), they'll make their opinions known in their voting.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has to walk a fine line that is able to sustain Japan while also appeasing this growing population. He doesn't seem to be going very strong though, considering he titled one of his initiatives "Womenomics" or his way to try to increase women in the workforce.

Societal Responses

Based on this shift in demographics, Japan has seen much change when it comes to the treatment of this rapidly growing elderly population.

First, we have the issue of illegal nursing homes. While these facilities might not meet the minimum safety standard, they are the only option for many low-income retirees. Generally though, these places are a breeding ground for abuse and neglect.

Then, we have the wonderfully named "corpse hotels." These businesses give families the ability to store their loved ones in a private room before they get respectfully disposed of.

Another interesting, yet sad, trend is the number of elderly dying alone, or kodokushi. In 2013, it was estimated that 2,700 elderly died alone in their home.

Japan's declining population also has an obvious impact on the housing market. Many homes and communities are being abandoned, some of them not even being offered on the market for sale. These ghost towns, almost reminding me of North Korea, propagate the political issue as well due to lack of local offices.


So how do we slow down this slip-n-slide into an unsustainable workforce and crashed economy? Let's take a look at a few options:

Policies that favor child rearing - giving men more paternity leave that allows them to help raise children more, and maybe (hopefully) a shift in mindset on the importance of establishing a family and not just working

Including more women in the workforce - with Prime Minister Abe's Womenomics, there is hope that women are able to have increased opportunity to join the workforce and increase Japan's GDP. We've run into some issues though.

  • Japan currently has tax-incentives that actually help working men if they have stay-at-home wives.

  • As of now, it's common for women to quit their job once they get pregnant due to the amount of maternity harassment they receive.

  • Prime Minister Abe admitted to women earning 30% less than men, making it less appealing for women to join to the workforce.

  • There is an overall lack of childcare services, meaning women really only have two choices: career or family. Prime Minister Abe is hoping to change that by increasing daycare service subsidies.

Building Back the Workforce

Even if Womenomics is a smashing success and raises Japan's GDP by 15% and delays the aging population issue by 20 years as it's said it could do, Japan still has a large void to fill when it comes to the sheer number of available jobs.

While trying as hard as possible to avoid using the word "immigration", Japan's government is looking into how foreign workers can come in and help fill in many of these open jobs. This could take the form of "guest workers" or just general pressure from the global community to accept immigration as a valid solution.

Besides bringing in a foreign workforce, Japan is also looking into how robots can be used to fill many of these vacant positions. These robots would have specialized jobs in the needed areas, like elder care or cashiers. Prime Minister Abe wants to quadruple the economic power of robotics by 2020 through a 5-year program to increase production.

The Upside?

While Japan still needs to deal with this situation so it doesn't collapse and send economic ripples throughout the world, it does have a few bright notes. This upside could be seen in the increased effort to bring women into the workforce and open up opportunities in life besides being a stay-at-home mother.

Or, depending on how they actually resolve this issue, Japan can be seen as the thought leader in this area of demographic uncertainty, as other countries will be dealing with this same issue before long.

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Too Long; Didn't Read

Too Long; Didn't Read

Japan is facing a demographic slip-n-slide where they have a quickly shrinking young population and equally quickly growing elderly population. As a country with a more traditional mindset, it is expected of the man to be the breadwinner and provide for the stay-at-home wife.

This becomes a large problem right up front though when men can't make enough money to support and family, and women want to do more than just be a stay-at-home mom.

By 2050, almost half of Japan's population with be above 65, and will drop to a little more than 100 million people. If no action is taken, Japan will have an elderly population that can't be taken care of, millions of vacant jobs, and a vastly depleted workforce.

While the workforce can be restructured with immigrant workers and robots, there may need to be a shift in mindset when it comes to men's and women's roles in the workforce for any long-term success to be achieved.

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Patrick Eng