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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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Discussions of the super-aged society inevitably focus on its negative aspects, such as the loss of pension systems, solitary deaths, and the necessity of elderly care by the elderly. In contrast, our super-aged society project team performed investigations to explore whether such a grim future is the only possibility. As a result, the team posited that a search for potential roles for the elderly may serve to alleviate labor shortages. The team concluded that “second work” may become an increasingly important keyword in these discussions.

The concept of senior-based team entrepreneurship

The super-aged society project team’s display at the Think Human Exhibition showed five potential ways to think about the elderly and their reasons for living. Specifically, senior citizens can utilize their previous experience to produce new value by serving as organizational circulators, regional community builders, childcare attendants, entrepreneurial partners, and wellness concierges.

The project team hosted Diamond Weekly Editor-in-chief Takuya Iwasaki as a guest speaker. He began by describing the current state of Japan.

When most people search for new work after retirement, they are forced into job categories experiencing a labor shortage. Most of these jobs involve manual labor, meaning that they are likely to be replaced by AI or robotics in the near future. Further, while dementia is one concern related to the elderly, medical science has shown that appropriate mental loads increase cognitive abilities, mitigating neural damage.

Therefore, from the perspective of preventing cognitive decline, it is preferable that the elderly continue to engage in mentally challenging work that stimulates brain synapses.

Given this, the project team believed we should imagine a society that, as an alternative to simple labor, provides everyone with intellectually creative work and the challenge of an exciting job, thereby producing new value and innovation. Starting from that hypothesis, Iwasaki proposed an idea called “senior-based team entrepreneurship.”

As he describes it, “Entrepreneurship is generally considered to be something for young people, but it shouldn’t be out of reach for those in their fifties or sixties. Colonel Sanders started his Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants at 62, and Momofuku Ando invented his Cup Noodles instant ramen at 61. More recently, we’ve seen the former Sumitomo Bank executive Hiroichi Yoshida launch a battery manufacturer at 69, and he is still its president at 84. That being said, starting a new company is no small task, it requires guts and courage. Getting help from others for motivation and support can be highly encouraging. Soichiro Honda reportedly met Takeo Fujisawa, with whom he co-founded the Honda Motor Co., through an introduction by MITI’s Hiroshi Takeshima. We hope to find ways of promoting similar third-party introductions for entrepreneurship, and believe that AI can be applied to optimally finding partners and building teams. In any case, this would mean that entrepreneurship is not a privilege specific to the young.”

Another problem is traditional craftspeople who have difficulties finding successors to carry on their work. To address this, Iwasaki proposed a kind of jobs marketplace for introducing these crafts. “‘Do what you love’ is a common catchphrase,” he says, “and we would like to extend this to the elderly. We propose that it isn’t always necessary to aim at becoming a master craftsperson—in many cases a year or so of training can produce a ‘good enough’ worker. Indeed, what one wants to do doesn’t always correspond to what one can do. Just as in the case of starting a business, it’s often good to start small.”


Innovation arises from communities of varied age and gender

Many people would like to relocate to the countryside following retirement, but finding a place in regional communities is not easy for those who have spent a lifetime working solely within the workplace community of an urban business environment. So how might young and old, men and women best adapt to a new community?

“Suntory CEO Takeshi Niinami,” Iwasaki continued, “said something interesting once: ‘There is victory and value in mixing.’ As we have already seen in several regional communities in Japan, when we bring together the young and the old, both men and women, we can find new trust and coexistence relations, new business models, and in some cases team-oriented entrepreneurship.”

Standing in the way of that, however, are preconceived notions that the elderly have nothing to contribute, or at best can perform only limited kinds of work.

Barriers to inter-generational collaboration and coexistence are particularly high in Japan. Iwasaki says, “A certain global firm started a ‘reverse mentoring’ system in which young employees were to teach digital technologies to their seniors. In Japan, however, this system did not produce the expected results, due to the formal speech that is used here. Customs of formal speech in Japanese are key to smoothing interpersonal relationships and communications, but young workers tended to slip up in its use, discomforting and even angering their superiors, because older generations were highly conscious of their senior status. I don’t mean to imply that respect for the elderly is outdated, but it will be impossible for generations to smoothly interact without establishing some degree of mutual respect. While the young no doubt have room for improvement in terms of their manners and language use, it is even more important that older generations learn to interact respectfully with their juniors. Continuing education is an important path toward realization of a post-retirement life, but inter-generational barriers and conflict can only hinder realization of an open society that is rich in diversity.”

Japan is the world’s first country to experience a super-aged society, so unknown problems surely lie in wait. This puts us on the front line in terms of having to address these problems head-on, but we can turn the situation around and consider it as an opportunity for being the country that first produces solutions to these issues. Community will be an important part of that.

“Hidden within communities are opportunities and seeds for innovation and building the future,” Iwasaki says, “but we need to alter our current thought to take advantage of them. In Japan, for example, we tend to only discuss the economy at a national level, but Nobel laureates like Paul Krugman and Paul Romer have stressed the importance of city, town, and community perspectives. Indeed, we have already seen politicians, industrialists, architects, NPOs and NGOs, and others acting on this way of thinking, discussing civil societies and recycling economies where various generations and cultures can coexist. To build a vibrant super-aged society, it will be vital to include similar discussions about community creation.”

With the arrival of an age of 100-years lifespans, the way we work after retirement—and indeed the way we live the second halves of our lives—will increasingly be questioned. The form of our communities will be greatly changed from before, and furthermore become of increased importance. Teijin aims at a tolerant society in which communities allow all individuals to pursue their own sense of values and fulfillment. We will apply this to our future business by properly understanding the potential of the elderly and by adopting multifaceted perspectives. Teijin believes that deepening our understanding of the elderly will produce a new “second work” perspective on employment, one in which active participation by community elders can advance a quality of life for many people that transcends generations. The arrival of a super-aged society does not need to result in a grim future. We hope that Japan can demonstrate this to the world.

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