On the surface, living longer seems like a good thing for humanity. Japan is learning the hard way that longevity has a crushing downside. While more spending goes towards health care and pensions, the youth put off having children they can’t afford. The Japanese government now seeks reforms to encourage fertility and boost the dwindling work force.

How the Elderly Took Over

Over the last century, Japan’s population has focused on the economy more than the next generation. Decades of moving towards the cities discouraged large families. New parents would contend with close quarters, harsh working conditions and no family around to help. In 2016, Japan’s annual birth total went below one million for the first time in recorded history. The population of 127 million is predicted to decrease by one-third over the next fifty years. On the other end of the spectrum, advances in health care led to an average life expectancy of 87 years. That’s a drastic improvement when the average was thirty years shorter sixty years ago.

Japan paid a price for this development. Senior care has put the country in a deep debt that’s hurting the economy. Social security now takes up one-third of Japan’s budget, while another third goes towards servicing debt. Employers have trouble finding young candidates to keep their companies going. While immigrants would help the economy, the Japanese hesitate to welcome foreigners who could potentially disrupt their culture.

To further complicate matters, elderly votes outnumber youth votes. This means it’s a challenge for politicians to shift money away from senior care.

Japanese Elderly Population

Government Pushes for Immigrants and the Next Generation

The Japanese government has taken several steps to set the economy back on course. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe loosened immigration laws, while evading the actual word “immigration” to appease the unwelcoming public. Over a million foreign workers have taken Japanese positions since the prime minister took office in 2012. Jobs like housekeepers and tourist guides, formerly held by citizens only, are open to foreigners in certain zones. It’s also much easier for these immigrants to become citizens. Another reform supports automation, aka a “robot revolution,” whenever possible in any industry.

Another tactic involves encouraging ideal situations for raising a family. The prime minister wants to enforce limits on working hours while funding care facilities. Meanwhile there’s a movement to draw the population to the countryside. Government agencies relocated while internships at factories and farms bring in Asian workers. However, the U.S. State Department cited these internships for forced labor. Migration to the countryside has also met with minimal success.

Immigration might ease Japan’s population problem, but time will tell if the gates can be opened wide enough to make a difference.

Japanese elderly