Shrinking, aging pool of workers push Japan to find new ways to fill Jobs

By Kanoko Matsuyama and Supriya Singh

Japan's shrinking and aging population is fueling companies' efforts to find new ways to keep older people in work longer as they try to address a chronic and growing labor shortage.

Earlier this year, the government pledged 3.5 trillion yen ($23.6 billion) in measures to boost the birth rate, but the shortage of available workers has been a challenge for employers for some time. Although Japan has taken steps to relax immigration controls, that has not been enough to make up for the shortfall.

All this has forced companies to come up with new ways to find workers and keep their operations running smoothly, sometimes with new ideas. Here are some steps stores, restaurants and other businesses are taking to attract and retain older workers.

Elderly care

Care for the elderly is an area where there is an acute labor shortage. What's interesting is that many of the people who care for people who need help with their aging bodies are on the older side themselves.

The average age of healthcare providers in Japan is 50 years, already about seven years higher than the average across all sectors; This figure is expected to rise further as facilities struggle to attract new employees. According to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the labor shortage in the sector is expected to triple to 690,000 by 2040.

Job matching site Sketter is designed so that non-essential jobs in nursing homes can be advertised. Tasks such as cooking, cleaning and meal support can be carried out by paid volunteers, allowing caregivers to spend more time on their main tasks: caring for the elderly.

“Seniors are looking for ways to participate in society even after retirement,” says Ryohei Suzuki, who founded Sketter in 2019. “They may be able to work full-time, but they are looking for life's work and life resources.”

Aging taxi drivers

The Japanese government has said it plans to raise the retirement age of private taxi drivers from the current 75 years to 80 years old.

Rural areas are suffering from an acute shortage of transport for the elderly as local governments cut back on public transport, especially buses, due to declining populations in towns and cities. As a result, taxis become the only option for those who no longer drive and need to go to hospitals or run daily errands.

A government official said taxi drivers tend to make more money in cities and are usually reluctant to move to regional areas; raising the driving age can encourage them to stay in rural areas. Currently, private taxis are licensed to operate in cities with 300,000 residents or more, but those criteria could also be dropped.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is being asked for public input until mid-October and is now working on announcing new policies, the official said.

Taxi companies are also trying to hire younger drivers straight out of school and offering more flexible working hours to make up for staff shortages.

New job categories

Recruit Holdings Co., Japan's largest job and staffing agency, began working with employers about a decade ago to break jobs into smaller tasks so that older workers could be matched to specific tasks, such as:

  • Stocking the shelves of supermarkets prior to opening hours
  • Cleaning and preparing factories before workers arrive
  • Specific job shifts at petrol stations, warehouses and fast food restaurants

As a result, employers have found it easier to find workers by offering more flexible hours earlier in the day, which suits older people as they prefer to work in the morning rather than late in the evening, said Kuniko Usagawa, director of JOBS research. center at Recruit Jobs Co.

“It's a great match,” Usagawa said. “At first it was great for supermarkets, but now there are people opening gas stations or cleaning factories. Especially in the logistics sector, we find people who take the first train to work at 5 a.m. and are home after 8 a.m.”

The same thinking applies to stay-at-home moms who may prefer to work in the middle of the day when they have more free time, Usagawa said. People with physical disabilities can also find more opportunities by being matched to specific, simpler tasks rather than a job that requires a wide range of skills.

Usagawa points out that older people who have jobs tend to need less health care and make fewer hospital visits. Many have told her that the main reason for going to work is to meet people and have meaningful social connections.

“Japan's aging population is often viewed negatively, but I believe this idea can be exported globally given that other countries are dealing with an aging population,” Usagawa said.

The restaurant of wrong orders

In 2017, a pop-up restaurant hired dementia patients from nursing homes to work as waiters, taking orders and delivering meals to customers. Mistakes happened along the way: some orders never came through or the food was delivered to the wrong table. But that was precisely the intention: to raise awareness and provide support, said Shiro Oguni, who worked on the project.

“All we did was put up a sign that said 'Restaurant of Mistaken Orders,'” Oguni said. “By setting this in advance, customers were more accepting. No one got upset, even though there were mistakes.”

Dementia affects 55 million people worldwide and is expected to double in the next 20 years, according to Alzheimer's Disease International. In Japan, where the proportion of elderly people is the highest in the world, dementia is expected to affect one in five people by 2025.

The restaurant project inspired businesses and eventually spread to more than 50 locations in Japan and beyond, to South Korea, Taiwan, China and the United Kingdom and Canada. Oguni said he receives almost 100 inquiries a month and 90% of them come from abroad.

“It is extremely difficult to increase social acceptance and we need a mechanism that will make society want to change this,” Oguni said. “Those who are inspired by the idea can implement it in their own way in their own society.”