Aging in Japan revisited

KQED’s Forum had a semi-interesting hour yesterday called Election in Japan. Their description:

Election in Japan

After 50-plus years of nearly unbroken rule, Japan’s conservative Liberal Democratic Party met defeat by the more liberal Democratic Party in the recent election. With record joblessness and an aging population, what challenges and opportunities might the new Japanese government face?

Host: Michael Krasny


  • Daniel Okimoto, chairman of the Sterling Stamos Global Institute and director emeritus of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center
  • Michael Zielenziger, journalist, visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of International Studies and author of “Shutting Out the Sun: How Japan Created Its Own Lost Generation”
  • Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations

However, you’ll no doubt have noticed the red-flag phrase “record joblessness and an aging population” in the program’s description. Conveniently, Dean Baker (who else?) knocked down similar nonsense a day earlier. It’s a pity that Krasny and his guests didn’t read it, or any of the many other posts Baker has done on the general subject.

Is Japan Suffering from an Aging Population?

This is very fashionable to say in all the news coverage on Japan (a “worrying rise of the world’s oldest population,” A), but it’s not clear what it means. The concern is that Japan will not have a large enough workforce to support its dependent elderly population. There is no evidence of that problem at present, when the unemployment is a historically high (for Japan) unemployment rate of 5.7 percent.

As a more general issue, a relative decline in the size of the labor force would simply mean that the least productive jobs go unfilled. This could mean, for example, that jobs held by the pushers who shove people into Tokyo’s overcrowded subways may go unfilled. There may be fewer people working as parking lot attendants, custodians in office buildings and convenience store clerks. As an offset, this densely populated country, with very high land prices, will become less densely populated and have lower land prices. It will also be much easier for Japan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants. It is difficult to see where the crisis lies.

Of course one reason that Japan has such an old population is that its life expectancy is so long. At 82.1 years its life expectancy at birth is four years longer than that of the United States. It is also worth noting that, despite a debt to GDP ratio of more than 180 percent, its annual interest burden is less than that of the United States.

—Dean Baker

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