Kiwis warned to prepare for population crisis, learn from Japan's mistakes

New Zealand is being warned to prepare now for a looming population crisis and learn from Japan's mistakes as it's estimated we are only 30 years behind them in population trends. 

Japan has the world's oldest population, with nearly 30 percent of Japanese people now aged over 65 years. Since the 1970s there have been more deaths than births as the country has one of the lowest birth rates, meaning its population is falling.

Michael Cucek from Temple University in Tokyo specialises in politics and Asian studies. He's been analysing Japan's demographics for decades.  

"The overall population of Japan plummeted last year by 800,000 people. So this is what that looks in terms of the numbers, like a catastrophe is happening, but it's a natural catastrophe that's been in preparation for more than 50 years," he said.   

And Massey University Emeritus Professor Paul Spoonley warns that New Zealand isn't far behind. 

"I think what the Japanese can teach us is that we need to confront this earlier. I think the Japanese have let it go for too long, and so they tend to have arrived at it at a crisis point," he said.  

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To see what New Zealand could be facing, Newshub went to Tokyo to meet Cucek and some of his Japanese students. Yuri Suzuki is worried about who will care for the baby boomer generations as they age and need more care.  

"It's definitely concerning that we are losing the population that can support the older folks," she said. 

Japan's notoriously demanding work culture isn't helping lift its fertility rates either, as many people are expected to work extremely long hours, which Juri Tanaka said is a handbrake. 

"It's hard to meet someone, get married and start a family." 

Kiwis warned to prepare for population crisis, learn from Japan's mistakes
Photo credit: Newshub

A population in peril  

Every year about 500 schools close and by the year 2100, Japan's population is forecast to halve, falling to 63 million. 

"There are a large number of deaths due to the passing now of the baby boom generation. What's most noticeable is the incredible lack of labour, businesses are shutting down due to a lack of available labour to work at the machines, at the counters," Cucek said. 

It's hurting their GDP, as the reduced productivity is coupled with an increase in the number of people reaching pension age, and their demands on the health system. Until 2010, Japan was the world's second-largest economy, but it's close to slipping to 5th place behind India. 

"It's a shrinking country. It will be less important economically in the world. It will be not as attractive as a nation in terms of as a trading partner, as an importer of goods, because there are just fewer customers," he said. 

Prof Spoonley said an aging population is expensive, as the dependency ratio changes, which is the number of people in paid work compared to those receiving a pension or superannuation.  

"Typically that ratio would be four or five to one. So, four people or five people in work compared to one on a benefit," he said. 

"However, we're really looking more like three to one, or two to one. So, the financial dynamics of societies basically has to change. And when you get a ratio, a dependency ratio which is two or three to one, then you've got a problem."

Kiwis warned to prepare for population crisis, learn from Japan's mistakes
Photo credit: Newshub

Japan's government hasn't had much success lifting that ratio with policies aimed at increasing the number of babies being born. 

"They've tried to get women or men to change where they live, to incentivise getting together as partners. Incentivise having children. Practically none of it has worked, and that's true for any other country that has tried that," Spoonley said.  

The Japanese women Newshub talked to all said they wanted children, but were worried about how they could afford it as the cost of living keeps rising. 

"I really want to have a kid in future, but I'm worried about childcare and the financial support I can get," Mao Okamoto expressed. 

Tanaka said the Government has also been lifting taxes in an effort to pay for the growing pension costs, but she'd like to see a better focus on encouraging women into having a family.  

"The Government could offer better support for families such as extended parental leave and financial incentives," she said. 

'There will be a lot of abandoned buildings'  

As the population shrinks, so too is the need for housing. Cucek said there is already an estimated nine million empty houses, and that's predicted to rise over 15m.  

"There will be a lot of abandoned buildings. Those empty spaces will proliferate so that... there will be buildings, but in an apartment building, there will be maybe two or three apartments, and then the rest will be just vacant," he said. 

"It will be very strange, and it will be quiet, that's for sure." 

Juri Tanaka said she's seen the impacts in rural Japan. 

"The shrinking population can create like ghost towns in rural areas, where businesses have to close down because of lack of demand," she said.  

Prof Spoonley said New Zealand could also look very different in future.  

"There are a lot of areas in New Zealand that are going to see that ageing population not only dominate, but really completely characterise that area. It will be an area largely of old people. 

"We're entering territory, which we really haven't entered before," he said. 

Kiwis warned to prepare for population crisis, learn from Japan's mistakes
Photo credit: Newshub

What is the solution?  

Prof Spoonley says Japan needs to be more willing to use immigrant labour.  

"I think many of the things that apply in Japan don't apply in New Zealand. We do immigration and we do immigration in numbers, and Japan doesn't," he said. 

"Immigration not only contributes to significant population growth here, but of course, it begins to even out some of the ageing and declining fertility effects." 

Prof Spoonley added he would love to see the New Zealand Government thinking about the long-term implications of demographic change.  

"So fertility is one part of it, rapid ageing is another part. The way in which our regions are changing in terms of their population mix, and of course immigration, what we tend to do is defer to immigration. 

"Immigration becomes our major, population policy," Prof Spoonley said.  

Alexa Cook and camera operator Richard Cooper travelled to Japan courtesy of the Asia New Zealand Foundation.