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Thursday, June 22, 2006


Women, immigrant, elderly workers needed as society ages

Staff writer

See the main story:
"Can Japan profit from recovery?"
See related story:
"China dominates as Japan questions role in Asia"

Japan's rapidly aging population is a problem that will be manageable if the nation utilizes "latent workforces," including the elderly people themselves, women and immigrants, a British journalist told the June 8 Keizai Koho Center symposium.

"Does it matter that you're getting older? I would say 'no.' What matters is how you manage it and the choices you make in doing that," said Daniel Dodd, editor of the BBC's business and economic center.

Japan's population finally started declining in 2005 with the nation's birthrate at a record low, according to government statistics. Last year saw the ratio of people aged 65 or older to the overall population top 20 percent for the first time, with estimates showing that one in four Japanese will be in that age bracket in 2015.

Dodd said an increase in the number of retirees offers new business opportunities for new products and services tailored to their needs. He also quoted some Japanese experts as saying that spending by affluent retirees has in fact contributed to the recovery in private consumption.

"So you can forget China trade. It's a gray recovery," he said.

Still, the nation needs to have more workers if the number of retirees is increasing, and "you've got huge latent workforces," Dodd told the audience.

First, he said, elderly people can work longer. In Britain, the retirement age, which is 65, is set to increase to 68, Dodd said, adding that these people would have longer post-retirement lives than their counterparts in the 1950s and '60s because of the extended life expectancy.

Japan can also increase the participation of women in the workforce, particularly after they have had children, Dodd said.

In Britain, more than half of women with children under 5 years old are back in the workforce — whereas in Japan many women leave the workforce when they have children even though they don't want to, he said.

"I was told that this (hindrance to women with children going back to work) is a cultural matter more than anything else," he said. But given that the demographic changes take place over decades, "you have decades to change that culture . . . and I'm sure that is achievable."

Many Western European countries have gone through the same anxieties about low birthrate and some of them, including France, have successfully increased their birthrate during the last several years, through such efforts as providing more nursery care, he said.

France, for example, spends 2.8 percent of its gross domestic product on family-friendly policies, whereas the figure is 0.6 percent in Japan, he noted.

Another option is immigrants, Dodd said. Britain is looking at maybe 7 million immigrants during the next 15 to 20 years, and Japan can also draw on large numbers of talented and ambitious immigrants from Asia, he added.

Anatole Kaletsky of The Times also said Britain — through its experience during the past decade — has found immigrants to be "a much more constructive contributor to our economy than many people might have predicted" and "much more politically acceptable and much less controversial as a social and political issue than anybody would have expected."

Dodd said adapting to the aging population "is going to be a difficult transition" but will be possible, and Western nations will be watching how Japan — one of the first major industrialized nations to confront the challenges — will deal with it and set an example for others.

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