Home to the world’s oldest population

How is Japan managing its ‘super-aging society’?

Created date

February 15th, 2019
A koreisha march is a rounded square with four quadrants; one orange, one yellow, one dark green, and one one light green,

One of the strongest and most enduring tenets of Japanese culture has been a deep respect for elders. Each September, the nation celebrates “Respect for the Aged Day,” and when Japanese citizens reach the 100-year milestone, the government honors them with a special sterling silver sake cup.

When the sake cup tradition first started in 1963, the government graciously bestowed 153 cups to its revered centenarians.

In 2014, the country needed an astounding 29,357 cups at a cost of ¥260 million (about $2.1 million).

What started as a lovely way to commemorate a relatively rare and significant accomplishment, now has authorities questioning the tradition’s future. Officials are considering making the cups out of less expensive metal or simply sending those turning 100 a special letter of recognition. Clearly, turning 100 is far less rare than it used to be.

When more than 20% of a nation’s population is over the age of 65, it’s deemed a “super-aging society.” Currently, 27.8% of Japan’s population is over the age of 65. Experts say that by 2060, 40% of Japan’s population will be over the age of 65.

Social security

One thing you’re unlikely to find in Japan is a senior discount. With so many older people around, businesses can’t afford it.

The government is also struggling to afford its increasing elderly population.

Operating with its biggest debt in history, Japan’s Finance Ministry blames the skyrocketing debt on surging social security costs. Currently, social security accounts for 34.2% of Japan’s annual spending. That number will continue to rise.

Just as in the U.S., Japan’s social security system is sustained through taxes paid by workers. In another demographic trend, Japan is facing a steadily declining birth rate, which means there will be fewer workers to pay into the system in the years to come.

For now, the government has increased the nation’s consumption tax to pay for social security, but that solution will be unsustainable over the long term.

One option under consideration is to redefine the age at which citizens are eligible for social security benefits.

Currently, citizens over the age of 65 quality for benefits. The Japan Gerontological Society and the Japan Geriatrics Society studied data on the physical and psychological health of seniors and suggested that the Japanese government raise the age to 70 or even 75.

Should the Japanese government act on these new classifications, it would delay social security benefits for many and cause a political firestorm among the nation’s oldest and most engaged voters.

Driving

According to the National Police Agency of Japan, drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 are responsible for most traffic accidents.

However, when it comes to fatal traffic accidents in Japan, older drivers are far more dangerous than younger drivers. Drivers over the age of 75 cause twice the number of fatal accidents, and drivers over the age of 80 cause three times as many.

At the end of 2017, there were 5.4 million drivers age 75-plus in Japan.

The government of Japan has initiated a public information campaign about the dangers of seniors behind the wheel. Their goal is to encourage older drivers who may have physical or psychological impairments to voluntarily give up their licenses.

The message is getting through. In 2017, 423,800 older Japanese drivers returned their driver’s licenses. To sweeten the deal, some merchants are offering older drivers incentives like coupons and discounts to stop driving.

In the town of Ichinomiya, the local police department teamed up with the town’s funeral home to offer a 15% discount on funeral services to older drivers who forfeit their licenses.

Another way the Japanese are dealing with the abundance of older drivers is by requiring drivers over 75 to display a Koreisha mark on their car.

It should be noted that the Japanese government is not singling out older drivers. They also have required beginning drivers, disabled drivers, and hearing-impaired drivers to display similar symbols on their vehicles.

In addition, drivers over the age of 75 must take a cognitive ability test when they renew their licenses (every three years.) Those who fare poorly on the initial test are referred to a physician who will perform more extensive tests. If dementia is found, the doctor can revoke a patient’s license.

Leaders around the world, including here in the U.S., are keeping a close eye on how Japan adjusts to an increasing elderly population as they look toward their own looming age waves.

By 2030, 34 nations, including the U.S., will be super-aging societies. By then, American Baby Boomers will be older than age 65, making one in every five citizens of retirement age. As Japan already knows, there will need to be a lot of innovative thinking and policy change to meet the needs of our aging population.

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