Aging in Japan and Across Asia

Our “Silver” Future


Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” from 1954 through 1973 became a model for economic growth that many developing countries around the world sought to emulate. In the latter half of the 1990s, though—after Japan’s asset bubble burst—the country entered a deflationary period that it is still struggling to overcome, with other industrial countries nervously hoping to avoid the same fate. Japan now finds itself at the forefront of a global demographic shift toward falling birthrates and population aging, and the countries confronting similar trends are watching how Japan deals with the challenges. The final installment in this series examines the unprecedented aging of the global population and what the future portends.

Longer Lifespans

The world today faces population aging that is “unprecedented, without parallel in human history,” according to the World Population Ageing: 1950–2050, a report published by the United Nations in June 2016. These changes, it warns, will endure: “we will not return to the young populations that our ancestors knew.” Planning and preparing for the impact of aging populations, therefore, is an urgent priority.

Prepared by the National Institute on Aging in the United States, the NIA report offers a comprehensive analysis of the problems aging will pose for both the developed and developing world, examining issues like life expectancy, gender differences, health standards, mortality rates, healthcare systems, labor force, pensions, and poverty.

The rapid aging observed in recent years arose from the combination of two trends: a growing older population due to rising life expectancies and a shrinking younger population due to falling birthrates. Factors behind these shifts include improvements in living and nutritional standards and advances in medical technology.

As a proportion of the global population, older people are growing faster than any other age group. According to the UN World Population Prospects (2015 Revision), people aged 65 and older made up 8.5% of the world population in 2015, but that figure is projected to rise to 21.6% by 2050. In Japan, the share is already 26.3%, and by 2050 it is expected to reach 36.3%—keeping the country at the forefront of global population aging.

By 2020, the number of people in the world aged 65 and older will exceed the number of children under 5 for the first time in history. As of 2015, there were 610 million people in the world aged 65 or older, but this figure is expected to more than triple by 2050, reaching 2.1 billion. The population of people aged 80 and over will also triple between 2015 and 2050, growing to nearly 450 million.

Between 1950 and 2015, the average life expectancy for the entire world, both men and women, grew by 20 years, from 51 to 71. By 2050, this is expected to grow by 7 more years, reaching 78. In one century, therefore, humans will have extended their life spans by 27 years. In Japan, the average life expectancy is projected to rise from 83.3 to 88.1 over the same span.

In the first half of the twenty-first century, aging will be an issue primarily for developed regions, but after 2050 it will increasingly become a burden on developing regions as well. Dramatic differences will surely be seen in the ability of individual countries to establish welfare systems for the elderly—such as public pensions and paramedical services—quickly enough to keep pace with changes in society.

However, because enormous expenditures will be required, most low-income countries will have difficulty establishing and maintaining systems to effectively meet their welfare needs, inevitably giving rise to grave social problems. With increased longevity, humankind may be a step closer to the dream of immortality, but an older population will present a new set of challenges.

Lower Mortality Rates

The falling birthrate is deeply linked to the baby boom, triggered by soldiers and expatriates returning home after World War II. In addition, there were couples who did not go to war but had avoided having children during the hostilities. As a result, from 1946, countries that were at war saw a sudden spike in the population. In the United States, the baby boom lasted 19 years, from 1946 to 1964; in Britain and France, 29 years from 1946 to 1974; and in Germany, it lasted for 13 years from 1955 through 1967.

In Japan, however, the baby boom lasted just three years, from 1947 through 1949. Some 8 million babies were born during this period, collectively referred to as the dankai sedai, or “clumped generation.” Fifteen years later, this generation joined the working-age population (between 15 and 64), becoming the main drivers of Japan’s “economic miracle” beginning in the mid-1950s. This “population bonus,” a phenomenon arising when increases in workers outpace increases in the general population, is thought to have contributed to the Japanese “miracle.”

Japan’s demographics changed drastically during the decade of the 1950s. The total fertility rate—the average number of children a woman gives birth to over the course of her lifetime—plummeted from 4.32 to 2.04. Jobs shifted to the secondary and tertiary sectors, and as people pursued higher levels of education, spending more time in school, they began marrying later in life.

Improvements in living and public health standards accelerated the decline in the infant mortality rate. History shows that when infant mortality declines, the birthrate also falls, as people feel less need to have large numbers of children. This reduces the financial burden of raising and educating children, encouraging economic development. In 1960, Japan’s infant mortality rate was 39.8 per 1,000 infants, but by 1975 it had dropped to 19, and in 2015 it was just 1.9, among the lowest in the world.

The lower birthrates that came with economic development also meant a shrinking of the younger population, and in 1990, Japan’s population bonus finally came to an end. Soon, the country would wind up paying for its short-lived baby boom. In other Asian countries, such as Singapore, Thailand, China, and South Korea, the bonus lasted for two more decades, until around 2010–15.

In Japan, as the younger population began to shrink at the end of the 1970s, the falling birthrate became a social issue. Society was already feeling its effects: the workforce was shrinking, people were being asked to pay a bigger burden for pensions and health insurance, and family structures were changing. Concerns were voiced about the long-term economic impact of these shifts, as a smaller population would mean a smaller consumer market, with child-related industries being hit hardest. Tax revenues would also dwindle, threatening the sustainability of national finances and the social security system.

Falling birthrates are vexing not only for Japan but also for many other industrial countries. Those in Europe and East Asia, in particular, have seen their birthrates plummet. Over the past half-century, the total fertility rate in countries around the world has fallen by half to 2.45, and it is expected to continue sinking, dropping to 2.2 by 2050. As of 2015, Taiwan had the lowest TFR, with just 1.12, with Japan not far behind at 1.43, putting it 189th among 204 countries. The fertility rate required to maintain a stable population for a developed country is said to be 2.07.

Aging as a Challenge to Society

Lifespans may have grown longer, but that does not mean that people are spending their elder years in good health, notes NIA Director Richard J. Hodes. The increase in the older population will bring more challenges that society must address. A rapidly aging population will have major repercussions for both short- and long-term healthcare, pension systems, labor shortages, and traffic networks.

People aged 65 or older account for 23% of all illnesses around the world. The most frequent types of ailments are cancer, chronic respiratory disease, heart disease, arthritis, and mental health problems, including dementia. The negative impact of these maladies are felt by not only patients but also their families, the national healthcare system, and the economy as a whole.

A 2015 survey found that 17.5 million people around the world were diagnosed with cancer and that 8.7 million died from it. In the decade starting in 2005, cancer deaths increased 33%, of which 16% was attributed to aging and 13% to increased population. Among men, prostate cancer was most common (1.6 million people), followed by bronchial and lung cancer (1.2 million). For women, deaths from breast cancer were most common (2.4 million people).

According to World Alzheimer Report 2015 published by Alzheimer’s Disease International, approximately 46.8 million people in the world suffer from dementia, and this figure will almost triple to 132 million by 2050. In Japan, the number of people with dementia will exceed 7 million by 2025, and a forecast published by the Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare sees one in five older people in Japan contracting dementia.

The World Watches as Japan Braces for Change

The challenges Japan will face as it continues to age will be unprecedented. In 2050 one working-age person (15–64 years old) will, effectively speaking, need to support one child (14 or younger) and one elderly person (65 or older). This is clearly unsustainable.

Japan’s average life expectancy in 2050 will be 84.9 for men and 90.3 for women. The 65-and-over population will be 5.66 million larger than it is today. In urban areas, there will be one elderly person for every 2.5 people, and one in four will be 75 or older. The number of centenarians will rise from 53,000 in 2015 to 441,000 in 2050.

What will Japan be like at this point? Opinions are divided on what Japan will look like at that time. The optimistic view holds that Japan’s technological strength and the latent pool of women workers will allow it to survive with the help of robots and an influx of immigrants.

The pessimistic view, however, sees Japan defaulting as a dwindling population and a shrinking economy causes tax receipts to plummet, and as nursing care, healthcare, and other social security costs skyrocket. Some already see Japan’s public debt as being unsustainable. While there has been no effective way to stop the decline in birthrates and the aging of the population, the international community is turning its gaze to Japan to see if it can come up with novel solutions to the mounting demographic challenges that many more countries are now confronting.

Japan’s population shrank by 290,000 from the end of 2014 to the end of 2015. The number of births in 2016, meanwhile, is estimated to have fallen below 1 million for the first time since statistics began being kept in 1899. Many are warning of the dangers to the country’s future, but perhaps most worrying of all is that the people of Japan, for the most part, seem blissfully unaware of the perils looming ahead.

The Issues and Implications of Aging Asian Population Project (Global Frontier Fund, Sasakawa Peace Foundation)

(Originally written in Japanese. Banner photo: Members of KBG84—the “Kohamajima Bāchan Gasshōdan” named playfully after girl group AKB48, with a number to match their ages. © AFP/Jiji.)

Sasakawa Peace Foundation aging Society