ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Japan has the oldest population of any country on Earth. Nearly 27 percent of the people there are 65 or older. And the population as a whole is shrinking, which means so is the workforce. Part of the government's solution is to get more older people to keep working, and that's not easy in a country where the mandatory retirement age has been 60. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging, and she went to Japan to see how the country is managing that change.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: It's good to feel like you're making a contribution. That's why 67 year old Hiromi Yamamuro is still working at Tokyo-based Sato Holdings. He sells products that are designed to help the environment.
HIROMI YAMAMURO: (Through interpreter) We're developing new products every single day, so there's no end to it. Plus, the purpose is to create an environmentally friendly world, and it's just so much fun.
JAFFE: In Japan, staying in the corporate world past 60 is unusual. Yamamuro's says his wife would like him to stay home, and his friends who are retired just don't understand him.
YAMAMURO: (Through interpreter) They say I must be crazy. How much more are you going to keep working? And they tell me I should do something that I like doing, but this is what I like doing.
JAFFE: The Japanese government would like to see more older workers like Yamamuro. A few years ago, they passed a law requiring companies to raise the retirement age to 65, but full compliance isn't required for another nine years. Sato Holdings is one of the few companies that is open to retaining workers past the age of 65, says Shigeki Egami, Sato's head of Human Resources.
SHIGEKI EGAMI: From a company point of view, this is very important - to provide many options how to work as a company. And at this moment, we have around 15 employees working after 65 years old.
JAFFE: Out of a total of how many employees?
EGAMI: Around 1,800.
JAFFE: One of the reasons the number of older workers may be so low is that there's not much financial incentive to keep them going. That's because in Japan, when employees approached the traditional retirement age of 60, their salaries were cut drastically. In the United States, this is called lawsuit material, but it's accepted practice in Japan.
Professor Atsushi Seike is a labor economist and president of Keio University in Tokyo. He says salary structures need to change so that more older people can stay on the job because if they don't...
ATSUSHI SEIKE: Both social security systems and the Japanese economy as a whole would not be sustainable.
JAFFE: It seems contrary to Japan's image as a nation of hardworking, industrious people that there are such significant obstacles for older adults who want to keep working. And they do want to. A government survey showed that seven in 10 adults over the age of 60 want to work until they're in their 70s or as long as they're physically able.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRILL)
JAFFE: That seems to be the plan of a 80-year-old Nenosuke Yamamoto. He repairs and reconditions abandoned bicycles collected in his area of Tokyo.
NENOSUKE YAMAMOTO: (Through interpreter) I feel if I keep on working, I might not age as much. I might not have dementia or other sorts of aging issues.
JAFFE: Yamamoto got this job through a public-private partnership called Silver Center Workshops. The jobs are for people past mandatory retirement age. And they're usually part time and low-skill - housecleaning, for example, or park maintenance. But for Yamamoto, repairing bicycles isn't a make-do job. It's a cause.
YAMAMOTO: (Through interpreter) What I want to do is to spread the idea that bicycles are fun. I have always been involved in bicycles workwise, whether it's racing or repairing or sales. And I wish more people would understand how much fun that is.
JAFFE: Silver Center jobs only pay about four or $500 a month, but Yamamoto says that what's important to him isn't the money. It's the chance to keep pursuing his lifelong passion, regardless of age. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Hiromi Yamamuro's last name was pronounced incorrectly as "Yamamiro" in the audio version.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.