Rajika Jayatilake notes that authorities are calling for Japan’s elder citizenry to remain productive

“We can never skip growing old. As we grow older, we understand old things and things of old times better,” said Ernest Agyemang Yeboah, the Ghanaian writer and teacher. But this positive trend of thought about ageing communities is not the general perception of seniors. To Japan’s credit, it is putting this line of thought into action.

The Japanese government is pressurising its corporate sector to have workers on the payroll for longer or re-hire seniors. This is because Japan has the largest number of elderly people in the world – some 27 percent of its 127 million people are over 65. By 2040, Japan’s over-65 population is estimated to rise to 36 percent.

Japan’s population peaked in 2010, to reach 128 million. As a result, younger workers will reduce to around 27 million. But in spite of having the highest global life expectancy and minimal net immigration, a low birth rate is leading Japan to a steep fall in population. Thus, there is a formidable demand for workers, while unemployment has dropped to a coveted 3.2 percent – the lowest in two decades, which is well below the unemployment rates ofmost developed nations.

This demographic challenge is termed Japan’s ‘silver tsunami’ and the country’s leaders have moved swiftly to spin this silver into business gold.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe recently addressed the global phenomenon of greying populations and said: “Japan may be ageing. Japan may be losing its population. But these are incentives for us, because we will continue to be motivated to grow our productivity.” He succinctly summed up the effects of ageing Japanese society as being “not an onus, but a bonus.”

Japan is way ahead of other nations in sending its seniors back to work. As demographic changes become apparent,the Japanese government is steadily bumping up the official age of retirement.

Generally considered to be 60 years, Japan’s retirement age was raised to 61 in 2013 and will increase gradually until it reaches 65 in 2025. With the eligible age for government pension payments being 65, people need to continue to work to maintain their lifestyles. A recent Goldman Sachs report on the Japanese labour market reveals that there is “enough incentive for (seniors) to push back their retirement and keep working.”

But many companies are yet reluctant to employ older people. The Japanese Labour Ministry’s most recent survey indicates that about 81 percent of Japanese companies still implement mandatory retirement at 60, even though Japan has no official retirement age. The survey also shows that only three percent of companies scrapped their retirement system while about 16 percent raised their retirement age.

“People in Japan have long, healthy lives, and laws and company policies in the country have not kept up in terms of making use of their longevity. Sixty is still very, very young in Japan,” affirms Adjunct Professor Florian Kohlbacher of Temple University Tokyo campus.

Some demographers believe the retirement age should be higher than 65. Ryuichi Kaneko – the Deputy Director-General of the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research – observes that with today’s superior healthcare and healthier lifestyles, a contemporary 75-year-old man would be equal in health to a 65-year-old in 1960. He explains: “An ageing population is very mitigated if we reconsider what it means to be elderly.”

While the general corporate sector response to the challenges of an ageing population is disappointing, some companies like auto manufacturer Honda have responded with speed. According to Bloomberg, Honda and five of its group companies are raising the retirement age by five years – from 60 to 65 in the 2016 fiscal year.

The requirement to work five more years could affect tens of thousands of workers. Honda is working to raise its number of women workers as well, and will introduce work-from-home and part-workday programmes so that more women will be employed.

There are also companies like Pola Cosmetics who appreciate the value of life experiences that seniors contribute. A Pola staff member recently celebrated her 100th birthday. Tokyo’s Setagaya district Pola boutique owner, 83-year-old Miyoko Sugiyama, values the experience of older staff members. “Unless I know the products well and can explain them in an easy-to-understand way, I will fail to fulfil my responsibility and my clients won’t trust me,” she said.

As younger corporate executives speak persuasively about customer databases, older retailers personally know details about their regular customers. They commit to memory the ages, preferences, health issues and buying habits of their clients. When new products come on the market, they visit their customers by train or bicycle.

Seniors appear to have experience in building strong client networks – a tool that is considered a great asset by companies like Pola, which need to increase their regular customer base.

British author Joseph Rain has said that “life itself is a process of growing and ageing. Through the experience of age, we learn, grow and prosper, becoming wiser, more adaptive and better at handling an intricate network of relationships.”

The bonding capability of Japan’s silver tsunami is indeed a quality to treasure.