Japan puts the elderly to work

Solution to an aging society: out of the hammock and back in the office

Jeremy Sutton-Hibb/ Joseph Coleman

Kato Manufacturing, in Nakatsugawa, in central Japan, is hardly a relaxing place. Generators grind, the air pounds with the slam of steel presses, and hundreds of pieces of metal rattle as they’re shuffled and arranged and transported on wheeled carts. In the middle of the racket, 73-year-old Hisao Kitawaki works steadily, showing a new employee how to guide a steel basket filled with grease-laden parts—for autos, airplanes, hairdryers—into a cauldron of cleaning solution. He uses a white towel to pat the sweat from his face; steam clouds his glasses.

A steel-products factory is an unlikely hangout for a man his age. But you won’t catch Kitawaki complaining—he’s exactly where he wants to be. Eight years ago, just as he was growing bored with the hobby-filled life of a pensioner, he saw an advertisement Kato put in the paper looking for special kinds of workers: old ones. “The only condition was that you had to be at least 65 years old,’’ Kitawaki says. “Okay, I thought, I meet that condition. The timing was perfect.’’

Katawaki isn’t alone. About half the 100 employees at Kato—which is tucked among rice paddies outside the industrial centre of Nagoya—are 60 or older, including 20 in their 70s, making the company a leader in Japan’s full-throttle campaign to lure retirees off the golf course and back into the labour force. Already, the number of Japanese workers aged 60 or older has increased more than 20 per cent in the past four years, to 11.3 million today—making the Japanese elderly the hardest working among the world’s top economies. If the government has its way, there will be many more seniors joining the fray in the coming years.

The reason for all the fuss? Japan is the world’s most rapidly aging nation, and bureaucrats here are petrified the country’s generous pension system will run aground as benefits outpace contributions. More than 22 per cent of the country’s 127 million people is 65 or older, and that is forecast to increase to over 30 per cent by 2035. Meanwhile, there are fewer and fewer young people paying into the system. And a highly skilled and experienced generation—baby boomers born between 1947 and 1949—is drifting into retirement, potentially sapping the economy of valuable knowhow when it’s needed most.

And so already, some 95 per cent of companies that fall under a 2006 elderly employment law have programs to make room for workers between the ages of 60 and 65. Now the government is aiming for an even higher age bracket. “We’re trying to get companies to create systems in any way possible to allow people to work until 70,’’ said Hiroyuki Itoh, head of the labour ministry’s elderly worker rehiring section. At the same time, bureaucrats are scaling back a strong disincentive to work: the generous government-administered pension system. Contributions are being hiked and benefits gradually cut, and the eligibility age is being raised in stages from 60 to 65.

Japanese big business isn’t exactly embracing the elderly worker. But change is happening across the board—from Honda to Sanyo to small co-ops—as companies scramble to adapt to the greying population. Many, in fact, see opportunity in an aging Japan. Kenji Ueda, a voluble 72-year-old former gas company executive in Tokyo, for instance, has started a temporary employment agency staffed exclusively by the elderly. He says the firm is thriving. “We recycle retirees like we recycle industrial waste!’’ he declared in a lively interview in his downtown office. And at an agricultural co-operative in tiny Kamikatsu, a hamlet wedged between steep mountains on the island of Shikoku, farmers in their 70s and 80s are making impressive profits—sometimes as much as US$20,000 a month—supplying seasonal garnishes like cherry blossoms to the country’s most elegant restaurants.

Many of the advances are being made by small, unknown outfits like Kato. The company launched its elderly work plan in 2002 when it needed people for weekends and holidays. The firm’s fourth-generation president, Keiji Kato, installed brighter lighting on the factory floor to help older workers with weaker eyesight and cut the weight of boxes and other items workers have to carry. The response to the ad was great: he got 100 applications for 15 jobs, and has hired many more seniors since them. Many are part-timers, who earn about 850 yen (about US$10) an hour. The oldest is 79. “People who are in their 60s are basically the same as us,’’ said Kato, 49. “We shouldn’t call people elderly until they’re in their 70s.’’

Kitawaki might agree with that sentiment. He retired at 60 from a local car-parts manufacturer, but after a lifetime of non-stop work, he soon got restless. “I thought, ‘Now I’m free!’ But it’s really boring when every day is Sunday,’’ he said. After five years of community activities, gardening, and visiting hot springs, he saw Kato’s advertisement and jumped at the opportunity to supplement his pension. Eight years later, he still has some fire left in the belly. “Right now, my target is 75,’’ he said, wiping his brow on the factory floor. “After that, I have some other things I want to do, like just enjoy myself.’’

Kitawaki is a rookie compared to Tsuneko Hariki. The 89-year-old works for the Irodori co-operative in Kamikatsu picking tree leaves. She wakes every morning, fires up her computer to find out which leaves are selling best that day, and then waddles out into her fields to help her family pull cherry blossoms, Japanese maple or nandina leaves from the trees. Then she sits down in her work shed and stacks them in styrofoam trays. So far she’s paid a combined US$110,000 for the down payments of two of her grandsons’ first homes—and she’s not done yet. “I like to make money,” she says with a giggle.

Despite the advances, businesses remain ambivalent: while nearly all companies have elderly employment plans, fewer than half can offer jobs to all the 60-year-olds on staff who want them. Some haven’t been able to come up with jobs that are attractive enough. Honda, for instance, revamped its rehiring program in spring after not a single employee retiring last year volunteered to stay on.

Some argue government measures aren’t strong enough. Critics have called for raising the minimum retirement age to 65 or abolishing it entirely. But others question the very idea of an elderly workforce.

Akihiko Matsutani, an expert in the aging society at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, said Japan should spend more time lowering the cost of living for seniors by building affordable housing rather than forcing them to continue making money. “It’s a scam. They’ve told these people all their lives that they’re going to get a pension at 60, and now they say they don’t have the money?’’ he said. “What kind of a country is that?’’ And still others say Japan should instead open its doors to more immigrants like countries in Europe and North America.

But, for all the shortcomings, Japan is making progress. And the real heroes of the story are the workers themselves. Thanks to a low-fat diet and an active lifestyle, Japanese not only live longer than the rest of us, but stay healthier too. Studies show they believe work pays the bills, but also keeps them fit, staves off senility and gives them a role to play in society. Maybe that’s why they aren’t terribly interested in quitting: a 2006 government survey showed two-thirds of Japanese men don’t want to retire until 65 or later, while a quarter want to work indefinitely.

Asao Arita is a prime example. The 74-year-old is a professional welder at Sanyo Steel Works outside of Hiroshima. He works an average of 50 hours a week including overtime, has a 100 per cent work attendance record and commutes by bicycle. He jogs on his days off. And there’s no telling when he might hang up his hard hat. He just shrugs when asked if he can last until 80. “If I can keep my youthfulness, then it’s better to get out of the house,’’ he said during a break, chuckling how people ask in amazement whether he’s still welding. “I’m always thinking how I can do a better job.’’

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