Community Social Infrastructure
Rapid urbanization and demographic shifts over the last decade have laid the groundwork for a lonely and isolated life for many older people in Japan and provided the impetus to design a more age-friendly social infrastructure that supports the needs and wellness of seniors. Innovative solutions have been developed to utilize existing infrastructure to deliver services and to prevent social isolation. Housing and urban planning projects are incorporating new features to accommodate a healthy and independent older population. One area of weakness is in mobility. While Japan has made great strides, public transportation services in suburban areas and barrier-free facilities in older buildings are still lacking.
Today, 6.25 million people age 65 and older are living alone, an increase of more than 60 percent over the last decade. Nearly 45 percent of them are seriously concerned about dying alone, and this proportion is especially high – around 63 percent –for those who live alone and have a conversation with others only once or twice per month.
One innovative solution that emerged to utilize existing infrastructure to prevent social isolation is the “watchover service.” It builds on the national network of Japan Post Group, a government-owned holding company, which operates 24,000 post offices around the country and has a workforce of 400,000. Japan Post first introduced support services for older people in 2013 on a trial basis in six prefectures – Hokkaido, Miyagi, Yamanashi, Ishikawa, Okayama, and Nagasaki – and expanded nationwide by the end of 2015. The initiative leverages the Group’s network of post offices and staff to monitor the health and well-being of older people and to report back to their family members. People can subscribe to one home visit per month for a monthly fee of approximately USD 20 and receive one check-in phone call for approximately USD 10. To improve service quality and efficiency, the initiative is incorporating new technology. In 2015, Japan Post collaborated with IBM and Apple to provide older subscribers with free iPads loaded with IBM-developed apps, which help to connect older people with services, healthcare, community, and their families. The apps enable older subscribers to schedule medical appointments, hire home-maintenance professionals, volunteer, and coordinate travel. During postal employees’ home visits, they also help subscribers address technical issues with the apps. This new service entered the pilot phase in the second half of 2015 and aims to reach four to five million seniors in Japan by 2020.
Japan has the world’s most rapidly shrinking population ages 15 through 64, a trend that has elevated the importance of mobilizing the older workforce to boost economic growth and to meet public pension obligations. This economic imperative aligns with the interests of Japanese seniors, who have indicated a strong desire to remain active and employed. The government has adopted a variety of policy measures to increase workforce participation among older people, ranging from reforming the retirement system to assisting older people w ith job seeking. However, employers have yet to recognize fully the productive potential of the older population, thus far tending to hire older workers out of social or legal obligation. As a result, a mismatch persists between the skills and abilities of older job seekers and the nature of job positions available to them, leading to missed opportunity for the economy as a whole.
The average age that Japanese use to define “older people” is 73.7. More than 40 percent of people between ages 65 and 74 do not consider themselves “older people.” Nearly 70 percent of older Japanese wish to work beyond age 65, but only 20 percent are actually employed.
“While many older workers have extensive experience and expertise and are suitable for high-skill jobs, after they reach retirement age they are often replaced by younger workers and put in routine, low-skill jobs.”
– Toshio Obi, professor at Waseda University
The Silver Human Resource Center (SHRC)
First launched in 1974, the SHRC is dedicated to supporting older job seekers. Fully funded by the national and municipal governments, the centers provide community-based temporary and short-term job opportunities for older adults by matching job orders from private companies, organizations, and households with older job seekers. The SHRC has also operated a Senior Work Program since 2003, which helps to improve the employability of older adults by providing free skills training and job-interview preparation in cooperation with various associations of business owners and public institutions. As of March of 2015, there were 1,272 centers around the country with approximately 720,000 members. Whilethe SHRC is rarely successful in helping older adults find jobs that are the same as they had before, beneficiaries gain opportunities to redeploy their skills and experience into new work. Small businesses in Japan, which are at a disadvantage compared to large companies in the competition for young talent, have proven particularly keen to recruit these older workers.