How old is old?

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How old is old?.

I'm looking forward to the debate about the retirement age. The issues associated with our ageing population should be discussed openly and comprehensively.

Most people know — deep down — our country simply cannot afford to keep paying a pension at 65, given our population is getting older and staying older for longer.

On the basis that a problem shared is a problem halved, I took some comfort in reading about how the Japanese government is addressing their greying workforce. Their problem is way bigger than ours and they've arguably left it too late.

At least New Zealand is thinking about our ageing population long before it becomes an insurmountable problem.

Japan is demographically the world's oldest nation. You've probably heard the claims adult nappies will soon outsell baby nappies in Japan. They're not kidding.

The combination of a low birthrate, the world's longest life expectancy and 33 million people (more than a quarter of Japan's population) being 65 and older has created a real headache.

By 2050 the average Japanese woman will live past 90. Japan's working age population is shrinking; the government's challenge is to keep people healthy, productive and in employment as they live longer.

Japan doesn't have an official retirement age so can't just add a few years to the policy and buy themselves some time.

While there's no official retirement policy, mandatory retirement at 60 is still in effect for most Japanese companies with a seniority system more common than merit-based pay. More than 80 per cent of Japanese companies still set the retirement age at 60.

In 2013, the Japanese government introduced rules requiring employers to keep on all workers who want to stay until age 65. However, in practice, when workers retire at 60 and return under a "continuous employment policy" they do so at a lower wage – often a significantly lower wage.

A recent survey showed the average Japanese worker's salary at age 61 was around 27 per cent less than just before the employee turned 60.

Japan's demographic reality is extreme and the country needs to find innovative ways to keep seniors in the workforce.

Changing the definition of old age is a recent and innovative initiative. According to two groups of medical experts who specialise in ageing, old age should be redefined to be 75 or 10 years older than most Japanese think now.

The Japan Gerontological Society and Japan Geriatrics Society said in a report last month that people aged 65 to 74 ought to be thought of as "pre-old".

According to their study, "old" would be better defined as 75-89. A special label of "super-old" could be adopted for people 90 and above, they said.

One of the authors of the report said: "Thanks to better nutrition, healthcare and sanitation, today's citizens are much fitter than past generations and labelling them as retirees is a waste."

Their findings were supported by a Japanese government survey of nearly 4000 people aged 60 and over; it found more than 50 per cent did not consider themselves senior citizens. Most said the label should be reserved for people 70 and older.

While these experts were thinking about ageing from a medical viewpoint, a re-definition of the current Japanese labour force could have profound economic implications, boosting the number of potential workers by more than 10 million.

Maybe the Japanese are on to something. Forget the age of retirement, just change the label!


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