Funny how the demographic grass is always greener. Poor countries all around the world are struggling with high fertility rates that impede development, while rich countries that have been basking in economic success for decades are now wishing for a little of what Yemen, Afghanistan, Niger, and the likes have got going on.
An article today in the Washington Post describes the ongoing decline in popularity with Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso that led him to call for a general election next month. Apparently, one of the problems detractors have with his leadership is his ambivalence toward the country's "aging crisis."
Under Aso and his recent predecessors, the government has all but ignored an impending demographic calamity. Japan has fewer children and more elderly people than any developed nation in world history, but its government has done little to encourage childbirth or increase immigration -- despite a growing clamor from business groups that predict ruinous decline because of a lack of workers.Let's inject a little reality check into that grievance now: Japan has a land area slightly smaller than California, at 377,835 sq km. Only 11.64% of that land is arable. Japan's population is 41% the size of the United States' but with less than 4% the space to live, work, and grow food. Even if Japan's fertility rate stays the same as it is today (1.27 children per woman) and population continues to decline, in 2050 the population of the island nation will be equal to what it was in 1965. Not exactly the Dark Ages.
Japan has the oldest life expectancy (82.7) of any country in the world and one of the youngest retirement ages (mandatory at 60 for many companies and as young as 63 for government pension payouts). The government is slowly raising retirement age, as it should. Sixty years old might have been elderly fifty years ago, but it hardly brings to mind a person debilitated by age today. Not only can people over 60 continue to work--many want to. In a poll conducted in 2001, 74% of respondents reported that they wished to continue working after the age of 60. Another poll, conducted in 2005 with a larger sample group, found that 78.2% of baby boomers want to continue working beyond 60.
Despite its high tech persona and membership in the G8 along with the Western economic superpowers, Japan maintains a relatively old fashioned society when it comes to family. In fact, only 70% of women continue working after they marry and start having children. Many demographers and economists have suggested that companies should make it easier for women to return to work once their children are school-aged. The fact that policymakers would rather raise birth rates (keeping women busy at home) than increase women's and older people's participation in the workforce speaks to me of an unsavory "discrimination crisis."
Trading one predicament for another doesn't seem prudent. An ever-expanding population on a series of islands the size of California, in a world with sea level rise and decreased agricultural productivity seems like a far more grave crisis than aging, and one that Japan's leaders should avoid at all costs.