Should we rethink our understanding of the elderly with the onset of a super-aged society?

Are the issues that we think will be part of a super-aged society really real? We need to take another look at the reality of a super-aged society by looking objectively at the senior citizens who are with us today. What will we discover and what new future will we see?



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The lastest figures suggest that the total global population is 7.35 billion people (2015). By 2060, this is expected to rise to 10.18 billion. Globally, the percentage of people 65 or older has been rising since 1950, reaching 8.3% in 2015. By 2060, this is expected to rise to 18.1%. In other words, the aging of the population that has been underway in developed countries is also occurring in developing countries. Japan has the highest elderly ratio in the world, with people 65 years or older accounting for 27.5% of the population in 2017. With Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Finland ranking at around 21% to 23%, Japan stands head and shoulders above the rest. Since the population of Japan is also expected to fall to about 100 million by 2050, the arrival of a super-aged society is a serious issue.

So what kind of future awaits Japan? As noted above, the issue of population decline is one that affects everyone in the country. When the Olympic Games are held in Tokyo in 2020, the majority of women in Japan will be aged 50 or older. Four years later, when the Olympic Games are held in Paris, Japan’s post-war “baby boomers” will all be at least aged 75. At that point, the number of people aged 75 or older in Japan will pass 20 million. Since the overall population will continue to fall, this means one in six people will be aged 75 or older (and one in three will be 65 or older)—the so-called “2025 Problem.”

It is predicted that by 2033 one out of every three residences will be unoccupied, and by 2040 the “second-generation baby boomers” will all be at least 65 years old. Furthermore, within just a few years after that, one in every three residents of Tokyo, where the elderly ratio is relatively low compared to the rest of the country, will be aged 65 or older. By 2050, the population of Japan is expected to fall to 100 million.

No nation on Earth has ever confronted such dramatic changes in such a short period of time, so experts from around the world are watching to see how Japan will overcome such an unprecedented challenge.

Encouraging participation of the elderly in society

One positive way to respond to this issue is to start thinking about those aged 65 or over as part of the working generation instead of the ‘elderly’. This would help offset the labor shortage and ease the rapid social changes brought by a declining population. This idea however does depends on the elderly playing active role in society.

The idea of defining those over 65 as elderly was something that originated in Imperial Germany in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, some data suggests that the physical capabilities of elderly Japanese measure 5 or 10 years younger than people of the same age a decade ago. This is a good time to question age-appropriate ways of working after people reach the traditional retirement age.

Yuji Ikegaya is an author and, in his book, Mechanisms of the Brain and the Mind (Shinsei Shuppansha, 2015), describes how, even though we assume that all capabilities deteriorate with age it would be hasty to conclude that they decline uniformly. He says that although “fluid intelligence”—the ability to process information about the immediate situation and generate something new—peaks at a young age, “crystallized intelligence”—the ability to leverage accumulated experience and learning to solve problems—continues to improve into old age. He also notes that we know from anatomy that the number of nerve cells in the brain is fixed from about the age of 3 and barely changes at all through the age of 100. The incidence of brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia does increase with age, but the brain as a device does not degrade over time. In other words, those who are age 65 can be said to be fully capable of working as long as they are physically healthy.

At the Think Human Project we will be taking a clear-eyed look at the issues facing the Japan of tomorrow and focusing optimistically, based on the opinions of experts, on the potential of the elderly.

We believe that correctly understanding the capabilities of the elderly by analyzing the decline and growth that accompanies aging will provide useful information for thinking about quality of life (QOL) in the future.

Masashi Kawai, Mirai no nenpyo [A Chronology of the Future], (Kodansha Gendai Shinsho, 2017).
Yuji Ikegaya, No to kokoro no shikumi [Mechanisms of the Brain and the Mind], (Shinsei Shuppansha, 2015).
Tome Kamiooka and Yuji Ikegaya, Nodama 2: Kiokuryoku ga nenrei to tomo ni otoroeru nante uso! [Fooling the Mind 2: It’s a Lie that Memory Deteriorates with Age!], (Gentosha Bunko, 2012)
Toshinori Kato, Gojussai o koete mo no ga wakagaeru ikikata [Living to Rejuvenate Your Brain Even After 50], (Kodansha Plus Alpha Bunko, 2018)

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