The Japan News website has published an interesting interview with Professor Kohei Komamura, a specialist in social policy at the Keio University and a member of the Government Council of Social Security’s population division. He is in a very good position to give an inside view of the current demographic problems facing Japan now and in the decades to come. He was asked questions about the recent future population report by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, starting with the fact that the estimated number of children a Japanese woman will bear on average has increased in the last five years to 1.44 (up by 0.09). Kohei noted that this increase is not enough to “change the low birth rate trend” and that “the future does not look optimistic at all”. He noted that even if fertility rates go up, the number of childbearing age is decreasing. So overall the total number of babies that will be born will still decline. In the first half of the 1970s the number of Japanese births was over 2 million, in 2016 it was 980,000. In the 2050s, the yearly figure will be about 600,000.
Ironically, in the past three decades or so, the government has prioritised nursing care and other policies for the elderly over childcare support for new parents. Proposals to reform pensions and to raise the age of entitlement for pensions have been ignored because they were politically unpalatable. (Other countries can tell a similar story, but the difference is that Japan is far advanced in its ageing and shrinking population.) But as the working-aged population shrinks, the Japanese financial situation will deteriorate and services like nursing care facilities will face financial pressure. As the growing elderly population struggles to find nursing facilities, pressure will come on their children and grandchildren to look after them.
Part of the government’s myopia in this area might have something to do with the over optimistic population predictions. Over the 30 years to 2006, predictions had to be continuously adjusted downward in each five year estimate. The 1976 model had predicted that the fertility rate would recover to 2.1. However, in 2005 it had sunk to 1.26 and by 2008 the Japanese population had peaked and was beginning to decline. In 1976 it was also estimated that the percentage of the population aged over 65 years would peak at 19 per cent around 2020. In 2015 the relevant percentage was already 26.6 and is currently predicted to rise to nearly 40 percent in less than 50 years.
Kohei argues that Japan needs to implement policies now to arrest the population decline. There is a severe shortage of qualified childcare workers and their wages are very low. Scholarships are needed to ease childcare and educational costs. In short, it needs to be made easier for parents to have a child, to pay for that child and to continue to work. The pension age of 65 needs to be raised and the current 40 year period in which people are obliged to be enrolled in the pension system needs to be increased. The culture of treating those of 65 as retired, elderly and useless needs to change so that people can contribute to society for longer.
But as Kohei notes, Japan’s ageing population should not be viewed solely as a negative. Instead, in the future working until 70 and living until 90 will be the normal life model. How our societies cope with the change to this “new normal” will perhaps be seen in the next few years as Japan, the canary in the demographic coalmine, seeks to deal with its shrinking, ageing, low fertility society.