Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently stated it is a family's right to decide if they want to procreate, in response to backlash that Japanese are becoming "selfish" in their contentment without children. Whether due to positive scenarios such as increasing life satisfaction or less-than-positive realities such as a chronic shortage of child care facilities, tiny living quarters or a reduced interest in having sex altogether, one thing is clear: Japan is aging, birth rates are declining and there aren't enough bodies to do the work.
Japan has ample reason to worry. A rapidly shrinking population threatens to erode rural communities, increase debt and drastically lower the labor supply, which may force the notoriously closed country (98.5% of Japan is Japanese, followed by 0.5% Korean and 0.5% Chinese) to open its borders. According to a United Nations report, Japan will need to attract 647,000 immigrants a year to fill the population gap. Given that efforts so far have involved an "internship system" that attracts mostly Chinese workers and pays less than minimum wage, it is unlikely Japan will come anywhere close to achieving this number.
Why should we care? What is happening in Japan is a lesson for all countries facing an aging population -- Italy, Germany, Portugal, Greece, the US and a host of other countries. Shrinking GDP, health care and infrastructure strain and a reduced worker-to-retiree ratio are forces that threaten to bankrupt world economies -- which will have a waterfall effect on everyone else. If, for example, Japan, Italy and the US suffer the fallout of their aging populations at the same time, how will that affect their allies and trade partners? Where will the caregiver supply come from? Who will fill the jobs?
While immigration is one solution to an aging-induced labor windfall, automation is another. In 2014, Mr. Abe unveiled reforms with hopes that the robot market would reach $21 billion by 2020. The robots, he hopes, will fill jobs in hospitality, elder care and other lower wage work as well as position Japan front-and-center in the worldwide robotics revolution.
Individuals wishing to capitalize on this trend would be wise to invest in aging-related equipment and products, robot servants and voice-enabled AI assistants such as Alexis -- or whomever comes next. People looking to avert the iceberg will set up a plan for their aging relatives well ahead of time, save as much as possible, and, if interests align, think about having a kid of their own -- though we won't be prescriptive on that.
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