Japan is the world’s senior citizen. Decades of improving life expectancy and falling birth rates have produced a rapidly aging and shrinking population. The demographic shift is devastating regional communities, contributing to a ballooning public debt and starving the economy of labor. In Tokyo, there are two vacancies for every job applicant. The government is scrambling to cope, with policies aimed at boosting fertility and support for working mothers, a push for greater job automation and a softening of the nation’s traditional aversion to immigration.
Japan’s population is forecast to tumble by about one-third to below 100 million between now and the middle of the century, if current trends continue. The proportion of over-64-year-olds — currently about a quarter — is expected to reach 38 percent in that time frame, intensifying the financial and care burden on the working-age population. In a country where over-50s are commonplace on building sites, 86 percent of employers struggled to fill vacancies in 2016. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who aims to keep the population above 100 million, has introduced policies to curb excessive working hours and provide more care facilities for children and the aged. But progress has been slow, and moms and pensioners alone cannot plug the labor shortfall.