Japan now boasts the longest life expectancy in the world. After World War II, the nation’s life expectancy rose rapidly, quickly assuming the world’s top position. This January, the Japan Geriatrics Society, together with other organizations, proposed to raise the threshold of the term “elderly” to age 75 and older. Analysis of data on the health of older adults showed that the emergence of physical and mental deterioration that typically accompanies aging has been delayed by nearly ten years over the past two decades. Developments in medicine, technology, and social environment have increased human longevity, but when we think about social security and economic activity, there is no denying that problems persist. It can be hard to imagine what life in Japan will be like in the near future when close to 40% of the population is expected to be over 65 years of age, but Keio University has established the Research Center for Financial Gerontology to predict just that. Through interdisciplinary research across fields such as economics and medicine, the center will propose solutions as to the impact of longevity and aging on economics and society in the pioneering field of financial gerontology. We sat down with Director Kohei Komamura to learn more.
"We’re entering an age when 90% of people will live to the age of 65, and social security benefits such as pension and medical care increase every year. The present pension system in Japan was first established at the beginning of the Showa era, in the late 1920s, and was built according to the 20th-century standards. People would retire at 55 and the average Japanese life expectancy was in the 60s. Looking at Japan in the 21st century, when the average life expectancy surpasses 80 for both men and women, we are entering a time when in the near future three elderly adults will be supported by four working ones. Many different measures have been proposed, such as raising the retirement age, but Japan’s graying population is growing at a rate that such fixes won’t be enough.”
“So how did we end up here? There are quite a few factors to consider. The public pension system became popular throughout developed countries from the 19th century through the 20th century, with the rise of factory labor and the spread of welfare states following the industrial revolution,” Prof. Komamura explains. “At that time, society was mostly comprised of factory workers who earned their wages for manual labor. For demanding physical labor, it made sense for workers to retire at age 55. When Japan later experienced a period of high economic growth and saw an expanding workforce that increasingly centered on office work, the retirement age was increased accordingly, as work was now more intellectually demanding than it was physical. Currently, many companies are making efforts to continue to employ people until they are 65.”
Medical data also shows it is possible to do both physical and intellectual work into one’s late sixties. From this data, we can suppose a society with a workforce that is active well into its 60s and even nearing 70. The retirement age, which will soon be raised from 60 to 65 years of age, will give stability to Japan's social security system if it can be raised an additional five years to 70.
In a time when the average life expectancy has risen to over 80, the population over 70 has increased, and the medical expenses needed to support the elderly is immense. The difference in health between the 60s and 70s is substantial, and the incidence of dementia rises drastically from 75. This increase is reportedly true of other diseases as well. However, some other developed countries have succeeded in preventing lifestyle diseases and suppressing the incidence of dementia. In the future, cultivating the capacity to maintain health and remain active is what will attract attention. And the current generation under 50 can expect to live into their 90s. There will have to be a change in social structures from the 80-year life model of the later 20th century to a 90-year life model that is fit for the changes we see coming.
It will take more than merely increasing the financial burden of Japanese taxpayers to address the problems of aging. One of the most common accidents among older drivers is mistaking the gas pedal for the brake pedal. Automobile accidents like these go hand in hand with an aging society. Thus, new developments in engineering, such as automatic braking and driving assistance systems, are expected to help to prevent these kinds of accidents. Prof. Komamura elaborates, “The longevity problem cannot be solved by any one discipline alone. Social neuroscience research built upon collaboration between medicine, economics, and engineering is more vital now than ever.” Research into the connections between health and economy are currently underway at Prof. Komamura’s newly established Research Center for Financial Gerontology at Keio.
“Up until now, our economy has been based on the premise that each of us can make our own decisions. But the longevity society may overturn our current assumptions. Difficulties are already apparent in areas such as asset management. The current system is ill-equipped to cope with individuals left unable to manage their assets due to cognitive decline or dementia. Interdisciplinary perspectives are necessary as social issues spanning the domains of economics, medicine, and law are on the rise.
Under current legislation, consent from an elderly individual is required before assets such as securities and properties can be moved, notwithstanding problems like senile dementia or debilitating intellectual and mental disabilities. "Due to this, a huge number of assets remain frozen in Japan. If these frozen assets could be put to good use, we would see significant changes in economic activity,” says Prof. Komamura.
“Children born in developed nations in the 21st century are expected to live to see 100. Just the other day, I asked an expert from another country about his country’s longevity strategy and social security system. He replied, ‘Isn’t Japan the most advanced in that area?’” Prof. Komamura smiles and continues, “Developed nations will all eventually face the longevity problem. And we’re at the forefront of pioneering transdisciplinary research here. Our efforts are sure to gain the world’s attention.”
The Research Center for Financial Gerontology aims to lead the charge in research on how aging affects the social economy, not only in Japan but also abroad. The center is also expected to make significant contributions to the Keio Longevity Initiative as part of the university’s Top Global University Project.