Japan’s Aging Population and the Tsunami

Reporter Martin Fackler described a harrowing scene in Tuesday’s New York Times of panicked residents of Yuiage village trying to outrun rising tsunami waters in northeast Japan by escaping to the tallest nearby building -- a junior high school. But the stairwell was crammed with elderly residents sitting on the steps, apparently too feeble to climb to the upper floors. Some younger people scrambling for safety either pushed the older residents aside or stepped over them, said an eye witness. Others formed a human chain to lift the elderly to safety.

The scene illustrates one reason the death toll is so high in Japan’s twin earthquake-tsunami disaster. “The elderly can’t take care of themselves in a disaster like this,” said Jun Kikuchi, a taxi company owner. And Japan has plenty of elderly citizens. In fact, it has the world’s oldest population, many of them concentrated in rural areas like Yuiage.

As reporter Alan Greenblatt points out in our CQ Global Researcher this week, “The Graying Planet,” people around the world are living longer, and couples are having fewer babies. As a result, countries are aging, meaning the proportion of their elderly residents is growing faster than that of their younger residents. And Japan’s population has been aging faster than the rest. Already, more than 20 percent of Japan’s population is older than 65, and that will double by mid-century. In 1963, Japan had 100 centenarians. By 2050, it will have 1 million. Meanwhile, the birth rate has plummeted. Japan had only about 40 percent as many births in 2008 as 60 years earlier. If that trend were to continue, demographers say, the last Japanese baby would be born in 2959.

Japan’s birth rate is so low, in part, because Japanese sons traditionally take in their aging parents, making marriage less attractive to Japanese women, who postpone marriage and have fewer children because they don’t want to have to care for both aging in-laws and their own children. Nearly a third of today’s young Japanese women won’t have any children at all.

Some blame Japan’s weak economic growth in recent decades at least partly on its aging population, since younger generations are the innovators and entrepreneurs. One can only wonder how such an aging population can bounce back from the devastating triple whammy of an earthquake, tsunami and, now, a possible nuclear meltdown.

But, as Greenblatt points out in his report, Japan is not the only nation that’s aging rapidly.
Among the report’s stunning statistics:

• By 2050, the number of children under 5 is expected to drop by 49 million, while the number of adults over 60 will skyrocket — by 1.2 billion. The oldest age groups in developed countries are growing the fastest: By 2050, the number of people age 80 and older will rise by 173 percent.

• The number of Chinese over 65 will triple by 2050. Within 20 years, China will have 167 million people over 65 — more than half the current U.S. population.

• Germany will lose 83 percent of its native population by 2100, as Germans die off and immigrants make up more of the population. The entire nation will have fewer natives than the current population of Berlin.

• The world population could reach 9 billion in the coming decades, but by midcentury it’s likely to stabilize or start shrinking. By 2150 the global population could be half what it is now.

The graying of the planet will trigger demographic changes that will profoundly shape economies, government expenditures and international migration patterns. Recalling the image of the younger Japanese stepping over the elderly as the tsunami waters rose, it’s easy to imagine, as experts predict, that the aging of the planet will pit generation against generation in the race for survival.

--Kathy Koch, managing editor, CQ Global Researcher