(Bloomberg) — When Akihiro Takano resigned from his well-paid job as an events manager at a Tokyo department store at age 45 to take care of his ailing father, he had no idea he was about to slip down the ranks of society until he was penniless and living in a park.
After his father’s death, Takano struggled to make ends meet with a series of insecure jobs while keeping an eye on his frail mother. Nine years later, in 2009, he spent the last of his savings on her funeral, fell behind on rent and was evicted from the apartment that had been the family home for 30 years.
He left with his mother’s ashes in an urn and her pet cat in a cage. Now, back on his feet thanks to a chance encounter with a group of volunteers, Takano has paid work as a counselor for people on low incomes and has become a public face for what the Japanese refer to as “kaigo rishoku,” or the growing phenomenon of job loss due to caring for elderly family members.
“My boss told me that once you take off your necktie, it’s not easy to put it back on,” Takano said in an interview as trains clattered by outside the office of a charity in Saitama, north of Tokyo, where he works sometimes. “I had stepped on a slide with no means of stopping. But I didn’t realize it myself — I thought I would manage somehow.”
More than 100,000 people a year in Japan leave their jobs to care for sick relatives, according to the government, and most of them remain unemployed.
The tally is set to balloon as the nearly 7 million-strong baby-boomer generation reaches the age of 75 in the coming decade, potentially dragging their children from the workforce in their prime earning years. That’s something Japan can ill afford, as the working-age population shrinks due to the low birthrate and the government’s rejection of immigration.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September vowed to stem the flow, which he referred to as an “imminent crisis.” In a speech, he set out targets for growing the economy to 600 trillion yen ($4.9 trillion) from the current 500 trillion yen, preventing the population from falling below 100 million from the current 127 million, and enabling as many people as possible to work, whatever their family responsibilities.
As a first step, the government last month announced plans to provide an extra 120,000 people with beds in homes for the elderly or other forms of support by the early 2020s, on top of a previously planned increase of 380,000 beds over that period. Regulations will be eased to make it easier to open nursing homes in major cities and entitlements to leave and allowances will be revised
The measures may boost Japan’s workforce by a modest 0.2 percent a year, Mark Williams and Marcel Thieliant of Capital Economics said in a report this month. Still, some researchers say the government’s proposals don’t address the complexity of the issue.
“It’s not something that can be resolved by just building more nursing homes,” said Takanori Fujita, author of Elderly Underclass, a book about the risk of poverty in old age that threatens even those with comfortable incomes. “What’s needed are more stable jobs with benefits, less overtime work, more childcare places and more support for women in the workplace. Society needs a complete rethink.”
Japan has 16.4 million people who are 75 or older, the age- group among which the need for medical and nursing care expands rapidly. By 2025, the number is projected to swell to 21.8 million.
The country is already saddled with waiting lists for government-subsidized nursing homes — about 260,000 people were being cared for at home while awaiting a bed in a publicly subsidized facility as of March last year. There is also shortage of people to look after them, partly because Japan has admitted few care workers from overseas, and the barriers to employing more remain high.
Noriaki Tsushima heads a group operating facilities for the elderly on the northern island of Hokkaido and serves on a panel advising Abe on ways to maintain Japan’s population and keep people in work. Tsushima proposes opening more nursing homes in urban areas that can act as hubs for the care of elderly people living in surrounding communities.
Resolving staff shortages is simple, he said: “We need to raise salaries,” Tsushima said in an interview. “If you build the facilities, but you don’t have any care workers, you won’t get anywhere.”