By Kristiana Raube
Japan has long had a love affair with electronic gadgetry, but this is a new twist: robots as a possible solution to its demographic crisis of a shrinking workforce and a burgeoning elderly population.
If looking to robots seems like a desperate or even absurd strategy, Japan’s desperation stems in part from its deep reluctance to embrace far more plausible options. There may be a lesson in this for other nations.
To be sure, Japan’s looming demographic crisis is especially acute. Its average life expectancy of 83.2 years is higher than that of any other OECD nation, and almost five years longer than that of the United States. More than one-fourth of Japan’s population is already older than 65, and that share is projected to reach 40% by 2050. By comparison, the US population over 65 is expected to increase from less than 14% today to just over 20%.
Japan’s suffers a double whammy, because its working-age population is shrinking rapidly. The nation has not had a single year since the early 1970’s in which the fertility rate was high enough for population stability. This has been called Japan’s “death spiral.” If the currently fertility rate of 1.4 children per woman remains unchanged, the Financial Times recently reported Japan’s population will plunge by one third by 2060. The result will be an inverse population pyramid: instead of many young people and only a few elderly, Japan will have many old people and only a few young.
Humanoid robots can already be found throughout Japan. At the Bank of Tokyo, “Nao” will answer basic customer service questions. At the upscale Mitsukoshi Department store, “Aiko Chihira” is dressed in a kimono and acts as a greeter. The telecom giant Softbank has unveiled a $2000 “family robot” named “Pepper” that can read your emotions. The Henn-na Hotel in Nagasaki, scheduled to open this summer, aims to have robots deliver more than 90% of its services.
A growing number of Japanese commentators are now promoting robots as a broader solution for the nation’s aging population. The Japan Times claims that robots are the best way to solve the shortage of workers. According to a survey by Orix Living Corporation, a Japanese nursing home operator, more seniors would be feel comfortable being cared for by a robot than by a foreign nurse – and 80% said they would not object to being cared for in part by a robot.
Some posit that Japanese openness to robots – as being helpful and kind – comes from the Shinto faith, which is based on animism or the idea that all objects, even man-made objects, have a spirit.
Western attitudes could not be more different. Many believe that our squeamishness toward automatons began with a 1921 Czech play by Karel Capek in which robots, first happy to work for humans, ultimately rebel and lead to the extinction of the human race. Variations of that fear have surfaced in arts and literature ever since, from Frankenstein to The Terminator and The Matrix.
But even kind robots are expensive, certainly if you need tens of millions of them to take over the work of caregivers, nurses and countless other service providers. And while robots don’t have to be paid salaries, they don’t spend, invest or build new businesses either. Compared to humans, robots don’t contribute much to future economic growth.
Japan has at least two more plausible alternatives, but it has been reluctant to pursue either one.
Option 1: Immigration. Foreign workers are currently only 2% of Japan’s population, and the nation could easily follow the path of Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands of women from Indonesia and the Philippines work as maids or other domestic workers.
But Japan remains intensely conservative about immigration, harboring deep-seated worries about harm to its “homogenous” culture. That fear was reflected in remarks last year by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a supporter of far-reaching reform in other areas. “In nations that have accepted immigration,’’ Abe remarked, “there has been a lot of friction, a lot of unhappiness both for the newcomers and the people who already live there.”
Many other wealthy nations, including the United States, are reluctant to increase immigration as well.
But Japan is also reluctant to seize a second and even more potent option right within its own borders.
Option 2: More women in the workforce.
Japanese women are as well-educated as Japanese men, yet they are systematically excluded from leadership roles across much of the economy. In Japan, more than in any other advanced economy, women represent a vast source of under-utilized labor.
Prime Minister Abe has set a goal of filling 30% of leadership positions in Japan with women by 2020. But that is a stretch, given that only 1 in 10 managers are women today. In the United States, 43 percent of managers are women. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2014 Gender Gap Report, which ranks 142 countries on gender-based disparities, Japan comes in at 104th, just above middle-eastern countries such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. (The US comes in at 20th in the global ranking).
Some blame Japan’s extraordinarily wide gender gap on the nation’s notoriously long work hours, while others blame the male drinking culture at large companies or “employment for life” policies that make it difficult to take a break for parenting. Still others cite the lack of support for working mothers, evidenced by the fact that 70% of Japanese women stop working for a decade or more when they have their first child. (The comparable statistic for the US is 30%.)
Are Robots Option 3?
Somehow, I can’t imagine my 80-year-old widowed mother with a robot nurse. But Japan’s struggle suggests that cultural barriers can be such formidable obstacles to broad-based economic opportunity that they make it harder to address an almost existential demographic problem.
The United States faces a major demographic problem of its own. The Medicare Board of Trustees has been warning for years that Medicare expenditures for the elderly will increase faster than either workers’ earnings or the economy overall. Social Security faces similar problems, though they are less acute.
The United States has plausible options to prevent the nightmare scenarios that many experts envision several decades down the road. These include more robust reform of health care delivery and more openness to immigration.
As we have seen with both health care and immigration, however, change produces intense opposition and resistance. Will the U.S. be any better than Japan in coming to grips, or should we all start preparing for robot caregivers?