The Silver Workforce

In Japan, one person in five is 70 or older. According to last year’s data of the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, 26.48 million people are 70 or older, which accounts for 20.7% of the total population [1]. If you go to Japan, you will see many senior citizens still working in the shops or running around the streets in suits. There, the term “elderly” has been redefined. In fact, a group of academic societies suggested only considering people “elderly” as of age 75 and people from age 65 to 74 as “semi-elderly” who can actively contribute to society [2].

Due to the shrinking core labor force and the long lifespan of Japanese people, the number of employed senior citizens (65 and older) reached 8.07 million in 2017, which makes up 12.3% of the overall workforce [3]. Currently, the statutory retirement age in Japan is 60, however, few people are taking their pensions at that age. Due to the fact that citizens are able to receive a pension anytime between 60 and 70 most Japanese seniors choose to work beyond the age of 60. Last year, the Japanese government approved plans to raise the optional age for receiving pensions to 71 and older and they are also considering raising the statutory retirement age to 65.

Aging problem is worldwide

Japan is not alone in this. The problem of population ageing is challenging governments worldwide. Many countries have carried out reforms aiming to increase the retirement age. According to the German federal government website, as of this year, the retirement age will increase from 62 to 65.  Also, the Russian government has submitted a pension-reform legislation that proposes raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 by 2028 for men and from 55 to 63 by 2034 for women.

Some of the senior citizens are happy to continue working in order to help themselves stay mentally and physically fit. However, for those who have a hard-working life and are counting the days to retirement, the prospect of having to work until 70 is a dire one. Furthermore, this kind of development means that young graduates are worried about their job prospects.

Compared to young people, knowledge and experience are among the strengths of older workers. However, there are also many factors that make companies hesitate to employ them. Declining physical capacity prohibits seniors from continuing the kind of work that requires extreme physical fitness, such as fire fighting, construction work or gardening. What’s more, with the rapid changes in technology, it is especially difficult for the elderly to keep up with the newest developments.

The value of the “silver employees”

Certain companies have discovered the value of the “silver employees”. The Japanese cosmetics company Pola is one of them. Many Pola employees are in their seventies and older. For example, Miyoko Sugiyama, an 83-year-old store director of one of the Pola shops. She knows all the preferences, ages, health status and shopping habits of her 30-odd clients. When new products come out, she goes to visit her clients personally by bike or train to inform them about these products. Sugiyama is one of Pola’s 50,000 “beauty directors”. Among them, 5,500 are in their 70s, 2,500 are in their 80s, 250 are in their 90s and recently one of their salespeople turned 100. [4]

Manufacturing companies are staring to realize the value of older workers, too. There, passing on the skills of experienced workers to younger workers is key. At, bearing manufacturer Isoda Metal this is well understood. About a decade ago, the company started allowing skilled workers who have passed the statutory retirement age to continue working. Grinding bearings requires accuracy within a 100th of a millimeter which takes years of experience and intuition to manage. Today a quarter of the company’s workforce is in their 60s to 80s and many of them double as instructors of younger workers. [4]

Creating easy working environment for the elderly

As pointed out by Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, “in Japan, it’s now less about keeping people working at the same companies longer and more about trying to get them into alternate jobs and to do other kinds of things” [5]. Furthermore, Professor Caitrin Lynch at Olin College of Engineering said that governments should create meaningful jobs for older workers that offer them satisfaction and a sense of meaning and of belonging, thus establishing a working environment and working conditions that keep them motivated for work. Even though this seems costly in the beginning, in the long run it pays off. [6]

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[1] The Japantimes. 2017. For the first time, 1 person in 5 in Japan is 70 or older. URL: [2019.01.10].

[2] The Japantimes. 2017. Make is easier for elderly people to keep working. URL: [2019.01.10].

[3] Nippon. 2017. Senior-citizen workers in Japan top 8 million. URL: [2019.01.10].

[4] Manabu Ito. 2016. Japan puts its seniors to work. URL: [2019.01.10].

[5] Richard Eisenberg. 2017. How these 3 countries embrace older workders. URL: [2019.01.10].

[6] Caitrin Lynch. 2015. Create meaningful jobs for the elderly. URL: [2019.01.10].