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Japan can teach us how to age well

The USA is turning gray – but that’s no reason to be sad and blue.

The Census Bureau reports that more than 54 million Americans are officially “seniors” – that is, over 65 years old – the highest figure in U.S. history. Seniors now comprise nearly 17% of the U.S. population, also a historic high. With about 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, the elderly share of the population is predicted to pass 20% before the end of this decade.

The aging of our population reflects two trends that seem unlikely to change: older Americans are living longer, and young people are having fewer babies. Accordingly, the Census Bureau predicts that in the 2030s there will be more Americans over 65 than under 18 – another first in our demographic history.

Economists and politicians routinely deplore these trends. With more retired seniors receiving benefits and fewer taxpaying workers to pay for them, programs like Social Security and Medicare face serious fiscal challenges. Businesses that rely on growing young families to increase sales fear a dearth of future consumers.

In fact, though, an aging population is not such a terrible problem – if we’re willing to take some lessons from overseas. Many nations like ours – industrialized, high-tech, free-market democracies – have already reached the demographic destination we’re headed for. For the most part, those countries are growing old and loving it.

In most countries of Western Europe, the elderly population share is already greater than 20%, with Italy leading the list at 23%. The world champion at population aging is Japan, where 28% of the population is over 65. About 30,000 Japanese celebrate their 100th birthday every year.

In every aspect of life, Japanese society is adapting to the needs of its old folks. Books, magazines, train schedules and telephone directories are routinely printed in both normal and large-print editions. At major crosswalks, next to the button that pedestrians push to get a walk signal, there’s a second button that can be pushed to get extra time to cross. Virtually every hotel, department store and train station prominently displays bright orange defibrillator machines with instructions for their use in emergencies. In buildings that have a bank of elevators, there is a designated priority elevator for people with wheelchairs or walkers. Escalators, too, have been modified to take wheelchairs. As befits a Confucian culture, the whole country celebrates a national holiday – Sept. 17 — called “Respect for the Aged Day.”

Japanese newsstands are filled with collections of manga, or graphic novels. Stories about young lovers have always been a standard element of this popular genre. In recent years, though, the manga artist Kenshi Hirokane has had explosive success with a series called Tasogare Ryuuseigun, or “Shooting Stars at Twilight.” It spins tales of older people finding romance. In one typical story, a 70-year-old widower, bored with retirement, takes a part-time job as a corporate chauffeur. He’s assigned to drive a senior vice president, a woman nearing 60 who has never found room for a man in her busy life. Over time, they develop a warm friendship. One night the VP tells her driver to pull into the driveway of a “love hotel,” a common venue in Japan for indulging in a secret tryst. A wild evening ensues, and the two become ardent lovers. Hirokane has published 56 volumes of these twilight tales so far, and millions of readers buy each new collection. Including me – I love this series.

To offset the fiscal drain of old-age pensions and health care, Japan has made major efforts to keep seniors at work, raising the eligibility age for pensions and banning a mandatory retirement age. As a result, a nation with a declining population has seen an actual increase in people at work and paying payroll taxes.

For millions of Japanese, the last years of life are turning out to be the best. I recently visited my old friend Maruta Yasuko in Kanagawa. After commuting to work for some 40 years – two jam-packed trains plus a long subway ride twice each day – she now enjoys the free time to spend with her family, cook fancy meals, and take up hobbies. At 82, Yasuko dyed her hair purple and started piano lessons. When I teased her about that – “Grandma playing chopsticks” – she had a ready answer. “I’m not the oldest person in the class,” she said.

So, Yes: the USA is turning gray. But other countries can show us how to relish our demographic destiny.

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