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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To give a caricatured depiction of the future faced by a super-aged society, we might think of it as a time of increasingly problematic labor shortages, an era in which the elderly put on exoskeletons so they might work to support themselves to make up for lost pensions, one in which they work with AI support to perform menial tasks. Evolutions in technology and changes in social institutions will certainly broaden opportunities for senior work. In such future scenarios, however, it is easy to limit ourselves to a negative mindset, one that considers how “even the elderly” can work. Here, we would like to instead focus on work that only the elderly are suited to. When asked what they want to do after retirement, some eighty percent reply that they want to continue working. Below we present five possibilities for senior work, not for self-support, but for self-realization.

Organizational circulator

At one time, it seemed that in every company there was always someone who, given the chance, would always be wandering around the office as if they had no place they were supposed to be. Such persons would often have some uncommon position, but broad contacts nonetheless. They were unhurried in their work, and oddly distant from the organizational hierarchy. They were readily available for advice on anything from workplace complaints to the messy private details of human relations. While such folk were of course likely to be considered as superfluous by upper management, they actually functioned as a lubricant for human relations, a catalyst for improving team morale, and a buffering agent against problems, thereby making contributions that are difficult to capture on a balance sheet. It is unfortunate that today corporate pursuit of heightened productivity has made it difficult for persons in such roles to exist.

As work becomes increasingly specialized and positions within companies become increasingly fluid, there is reduced organizational reliance on individuals, accompanied by a weakening of human relations. There has also been a decrease in smoking areas and drinking parties, which once served as sites for information exchange between persons with no particular business interests. This is a common-sense trend when considered against the standard of productivity, but it creates an environment that inhibits innovation.

Innovation often arises through friction between the differing knowledge, abilities, ideas, and cultures of heterogeneous parties. Such aspects do not naturally come into contact within the confines of a rigidized organization. There is thus increasing interest in “organizational circulators,” persons who can circulate the stale air in an organization to pass new breezes through it.

Indeed, with the goal of creating an environment that facilitates open innovation, quite a few companies have intentionally given discretion to persons with vague organizational affiliations, thereby promoting information distribution inside and outside the organization. This “drifter” role, which in the past was something that organizations tolerated, is thus now coming to be recognized as a role that should be intentionally assigned.

Companies of the future with increasingly many experienced seniors will likely make use of them, even following their retirement, as persons who in a positive sense churn up interpersonal relationships. Seniors who have once satisfied their life goals as an organization member are low-risk assignments for the role of challenge promoters. To fulfill such a mission, rather than the traditional workstyle of showing up at the company at the same time every day, more can be expected from their enriching leisure activities outside of work and returning with the results of their experience. We believe this will also lead to the creation of new ways for seniors to continue working

Regional community builder

Regardless of where you are from, the “busybody” was likely once a familiar trope. Busybodies were familiar with the human relationships in their community, had some sort of connection with everyone, and were always willing to lend an ear. They were a font of advice and knowledge, and helpful in finding jobs or marriage partners. It was through such people that those living in regional communities might have been considered as meddlesome or troublesome in their efforts to help, but they were also why small communities could develop family-like personal relations that provide mutual assistance.

Today, while increased respect for individuality has provided us with freedom and privacy, a secondary result is social problems such as hidden isolation and solitariness. A lack of mutual interference within communities has led to increasingly many cases in which individual problems remain unseen within the region, potentially leading to an inability to access necessary public services, and thus irrevocable states such as poverty, abuse, and solitary death.

To prevent such tragedies, there is need for a new kind of “busybody” who can connect people while still respecting their individuality. Seniors freed from the time demands of a career are perfect for this role. Local regions provide surprisingly many areas for them to apply their skills and expertise for building personal connections, coordinating interests, and taking on problem solving, skills previously developed within the tight-knit communities of their former workplaces.

The Bromley district in the East End of London is a well-known example of reviving a devastated community. Governmental welfare measures were unable to keep pace in this area, which is heavily populated by ethnic minorities, leading to chronically high unemployment and poverty rates. However, a pastor who was appointed to a local church changed the situation. He listened to the problems of those in the area and helped them find people who can solve their problems, and through repetition of this he developed a unified framework, eventually leading to establishment of a communications center for supporting medical care, child-rearing services, and job-finding through mutual aid within the community.

Such a macro-perspective of an overall society can help in identifying micro-scale regional issues that can be solved through local efforts. Communities today are in high need of such an existence. When residents utilize their personal experience as a resource, they can rebuild the regions in which they live. While these are essentially social activities, they also have personal significance, in that they allow development of regions in which residents and their families can live in security for their entire lives. In terms of both rewarding challenge and social impact, this is a suitable job to take on at the end of one’s life.

Child-rearing attendant

When considering an aging society, it is easy to overlook one important fact—that the majority of the elderly are women. According to statistics compiled by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the proportion of women in Japan’s over-65 population is 57% (as of September 2017). This ratio rises with increasing age segment, with 64% of those 80 or older being women.

In Japan, the country with the most rapidly aging population and most rapidly declining birthrate, realization of a society that facilitates child-rearing is one of the most urgent social issues, and solutions to this problem will be impossible without the assistance of these numerous senior women.

Of course, when viewed at the level of individual families, the elder generation as a whole—not only women—has long provided important support for child-rearing. Many grandparents live in sufficient proximity to their working-age children to offer emotional support for the raising of their grandchildren. In contrast, however, there are many parents who are left to their own devices, or who are only just managing to balance child-rearing with work. While working with children may seem to be a natural thing, successfully doing so is a privilege of those fortunate enough to live in proximity to parents who are healthy, have sufficient time and financial freedom, and with whom they have a good relationship. So long as this is the case, we will never realize a society in which it is easy to raise children.

We believe that what is needed is a “socialization of child rearing,” more specifically, the formation of communities for child-rearing that can be conducted at more local levels. If we can harness the abilities of elderly women with child-rearing experience to help care for children for which daycare centers and other public services are unavailable, the result will be a greatly improved child-rearing environment. At the same time, this will provide emotional support for young parents at risk of social isolation, and furthermore raise the value of the regions in which such systems exist.

There are already cases where local parents who know each other form networks to share services such as school pick-ups or short-term babysitting. Such frameworks for mutual assistance among members of current parents can only be strengthened through participation of seniors.

We live in a society of fewer children and increasingly many elderly, but viewed another way, this is a society in which there are more adults available to help each child. The reality, however, is that this is also a society in which there are increasingly many single-child families, which means not only fewer siblings, but also fewer close relations with cousins, aunts and uncles, tending to create a closed environment for child-rearing. Utilizing the abilities of regional seniors, thereby creating a more open environment for child-rearing, is important in the sense that doing so will create more diversified channels through which children can learn about society.

Entrepreneurial partner

We are entering what is called the “age of 100-year lives.” This is far too long for “single-career” life courses in which one does a single job at a single company. Decreasing dependence on a single organization will accelerate individual lifestyles featuring diverse careers. This will result in a social accumulation of senior human resources with “multi-career” experience over differing industries and occupations. If we can bring the invaluable expertise of such people to the next generation of business people, doing so should prove a significant resource for revitalizing society. The expected role for these seniors is to become a “young entrepreneur’s partner.”

It is not uncommon to see situations where new ventures have wonderful technologies and ideas, but remain stalled due to lack of management expertise. What they need is not only resource consultants, such as those providing knowledge or investors who provide funds; they also need autonomous partners who can identify the business’s potential and build the necessary human networks, as well as provide mental support by closely following executives, who tend to become isolated. These persons watch over the company’s development by helping to correctly position new businesses within it, sometimes serving as an advisor, an investor, a friend, and sometimes even as a client. Seniors having experienced multiple careers have skills in management, leadership, and hospitality, making them perfect for this role.

Judgment through experience is a human characteristic that can never be substituted by AIs or robots, and seniors are clearly superior in this respect. In addition, seniors have already completed their children’s education and paid off their mortgages, and so are near completion of the roadmap for their life goals, freeing them from time and economic constraints. They are thus well positioned for providing material and mental support for the many entrepreneurial risks. As multi-career life plans become commonplace, there will be increasingly many senior entrepreneurs starting new businesses following retirement. There will also likely be increasing senior partner support for these senior entrepreneurs.

However, in order for them to achieve results in such work, they need to be able to reset their past titles and achievements, placing them in a mindset in which they can interface with young managers as equal partners apart from any hierarchical relationship. Otherwise, rather than becoming partners, dated thinking can easily become a restraining force on the young. We believe that superb entrepreneurial partners have high potential as a next career in the role of trainer for fostering the next generation of entrepreneurial partners.

Wellness concierge

Hypertension, diabetes, hyperlipidemia, arteriosclerotic disease, periodontal disease... An increase in those suffering from lifestyle diseases is an unavoidable reality in an aging society. Indeed, the 2016 National Health and Nutrition Survey by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare suggests that an estimated 10 million people in Japan are likely have diabetes. Factors leading to lifestyle diseases include genetics, the environment, lifestyle habits, and aging. Moreover, many seniors simultaneously present multiple diseases, making their treatment complex.

Overall control of lifestyle factors such as diet, exercise, and sleep are important for preventing the worsening of lifestyle disease symptoms. However, when patients’ worsening conditions lower their spirits, this can lead to a vicious cycle of lowered social interaction, going out less, worsened diet, and weakening of the body. It can be difficult to escape from this cycle on one’s own, and this problem is exacerbated by the increasing number of elderly persons living alone.

We suggest that continued motivation for recuperation from illness requires not only medical care, but also the existence of lifestyle professionals who can provide a care environment in close contact with patients. Unlike traditional models of care by doctors and nurses, such a professional would have a deep understanding of individual patients’ circumstances, thereby becoming someone who can watch over their lifestyles.

While Japan’s society is aging, there is also a definite increase in the number of healthy seniors. A FY2017 survey of physical fitness and exercise ability showed a definite trend for increased physical fitness in men and women aged 65 to 79, with some items showing an effective age decrease of five years as compared with data from 1998, the first year the survey was conducted. Many reported engaging in sports on a daily basis, providing their daily lives with a sense of fulfillment.

We believe that such an active life is well deserving of mental and physical support as a way of reducing chronic illness and improving seniors’ wellness. By not only enjoying meals and exercise with patients, but also providing them with simple therapeutic support such as helping with blood pressure measurements and taking medicines, caregivers can more easily notice changes in symptoms and help patients get to more specialized medical care facilities as needed. There will thus be a particular need for human resources with experience in specialized fields such as medicine, sports, and counseling.

The Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare is promoting what it calls “regional comprehensive care systems” to allow seniors to spend their entire lives living as they wish in places they are comfortable in. Securing caregivers like those described above is an important factor for realizing these goals, so the creation of such certifications in the future is worth considering.

Caregivers from the same generation as their senior patients, allowing them to better understand and empathize with elderly patients’ conditions and concerns, have high potential as therapists for supporting those in the late stages of their lives. Seniors can also be hesitant to receive care from young persons. We therefore expect models in which seniors care for seniors to become an increasingly important perspective in the future.


Shin’ichi Kamei, Director
Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc.

M.S., Ph.D. Chemistry, Tohoku University. Joined Mitsubishi Research Institute, Inc. in 1986. Research focuses on physical chemistry, system analysis, and technology predictions. Member, Engineering Academy of Japan. After engaging in research on space environment experiments, molecular nanotechnology experiments, research and development strategies, and science and technology policies, served in posts including Director of the Advanced Science Research Center, Director of Human and Lifestyles Research Division, and Director of the Policy and Economic Research Center. Currently, he is a Research Fellow. Current interests include long-term future predictions that anticipate scientific and technological advancement and emergent research from living organisms.

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