Analysis & Comment

Aging Societies

Asia faces a problem: Its population is aging faster than any other continent’s. A growing percentage of people in Japan, South Korea and China are over 65, and those countries’ economies are suffering because of a lack of available workers. Governments are struggling to find the money to support retirees.

The problem is pronounced in Japan. I spoke to Motoko Rich, The Times’s Tokyo bureau chief, about what it means when a society ages this quickly.

Claire: You’ve reported on the rapidly graying populations of Japan and other Asian countries. How much is Asia aging, and how did we get here?

Motoko: Let’s start with Japan. Almost a third of the population is over 65. For comparison, in the U.S. that number is about 17 percent. And experts say South Korea and China are on track to reach similar levels in the coming years.

One reason is the low birthrates in these countries. In China, it was because of the one-child policy. In Japan and Korea, gender inequality and the high cost of raising children played important roles. Because of high expectations at home, it’s hard for women to combine parenting with having a fulfilling career. As a result, more women are postponing childbirth or deciding not to have children at all.

Life expectancy is also long in these countries. Looking from afar, there are some jolly aspects to that, like happy centenarians who are living healthy lives on the Japanese island of Okinawa. But there’s a dark side. Japan has the highest percentage of old people with dementia. And there are not enough workers to take care of them and even to fill the jobs to run the economy.

I understand why an aging population poses challenges within a country. What does it mean for people living elsewhere?

It’s coming for you. Population growth in the U.S. is at extremely low levels. Italy’s population is aging at the fastest rate in the West. Other countries will look toward Asia and learn from it. They’ll see what to do or what not to do.

You can compare the issue to how people used to view climate change: It was happening for many years, but we weren’t paying attention. Societies need to plan for aging, and they’re not well set up to do so. It’s not an in-your-face crisis — it’s a slow-rolling crisis.

Older people in Asia are often in good physical health. What about their mental health?

Mental health is a huge problem. Some people die alone, as my colleague Norimitsu Onishi wrote a few years ago. People have fewer children than they used to. Those children move to cities, and are not in a position to take care of their parents who are left behind in depopulating areas. So old people are living in isolation.

Other than older people working longer, what are some potential solutions?

Bringing in workers from other countries seems to be the only solution, but Japan is notoriously opposed to immigration. A few years ago it changed its laws to allow some workers, but the parameters were strict and it didn’t have a major impact.

Japan is not the only country in the region struggling with this. Last year in China, deaths outnumbered births for the first time in six decades. How is China dealing with its aging population?

China has been scrambling to forestall the decline by ending its one-child policy and encouraging families to have more children, including — like in Japan — the subsidizing of assisted reproductive technology, in the hopes that it will spur more births.

You recently wrote a story about older people in Tokyo working manual jobs. How did you get that idea?

I wanted to do the story because I see it everywhere. A few years into living here, I hired movers. When they showed up, they looked like grandparents. My husband and I kept offering to help — they seemed way too old to be doing this kind of labor. When you open the door for a delivery, often the person looks too old to still be working.

If you go into the post office or banks, there’ll often be a selection of reading glasses at the counter. There are also little nooks where people can hang their canes. In train stations, there’s more seating for older people, but also more old people nimbly climbing the stairs than I was used to seeing in New York. It’s very clearly an older society.

Motoko Rich is The Times’s Tokyo bureau chief. Her first front-page story from Japan was about the middle-aged dissolution of a beloved boy band.

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Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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