Benedict Evans / WIRED
Covid-19 is a shock that has swept the world, affecting countries rich and poor. It is not the only one. While governments focus on the pandemic, we are quietly hurtling towards a new destination – the “hyper-aged society” – which will bring new tensions between health, economics and politics. Already bubbling fast, Covid-19 looks set to speed things up. With almost all economies on the same path, we should be looking to the leader of the pack, Japan, for clues to the future.
Two thrusters are propelling us towards economic systems defined by old age. The first is the fact that, year after year, we are seeing more extremely old people. In 1963, Japan started collecting data on 100-year-olds, with government statisticians finding 153 of them. By 2040, forecasts predict there will be more than 300,000.
Ultra-long lives combine with the second thruster – falling birth rates. In 1920, the average Japanese woman had five children; today, this statistic, the “fertility rate”, has fallen to around one. With vastly more old people, and far fewer young ones, a country’s average age shoots up. And because these are global trends, South Korea, Germany and Italy are tracking Japan, with others, like Brazil, following close behind.
An elderly society is an achievement – a sign of fitness, economic and social. Investment in water and sewerage infrastructure has eradicated many water-borne diseases; scientific advances have led to widespread immunisation and vaccination; diet and exercise have improved. Alongside this, birth rates fall as economies grow richer, since agricultural technology reduces the need to rely on children as workers.
But elderly societies become frail, too. The most obvious pinch points are rising pension and healthcare costs. The current pandemic has intensified this. In the UK, more than 89 per cent of deaths due to Covid-19 have been in the over 65s. In Akita – a hyper-aged region of Japan I visited to investigate ageing – more than a third of people are already over 65. The budgetary costs of keeping people healthy rise sharply.
The frailty is not just economic, but social. Japan is famed for its family structures and respect for the elderly. Yet on the ground in Akita city and Tokyo, things aren’t so rosy. The term sedaikan kakusa or “intergenerational inequality” comes up a lot, as those under 30 wonder why they are propping up pension payments and hospitals to cater to the elderly. A world with pandemics ramps up these costs and undermines young people’s freedom to congregate and their ability to work. The result, surely, is more tension.
Cities tend to lead, but the final stage of the ageing trend will start in small towns and villages. As young people migrate to urban centres, communities are appearing that are almost exclusively elderly. By threatening the old and isolated, Covid-19 and any pandemic like it could intensify a bizarre phenomenon – the disappearing town. Travel through rural Japan and you find countless akiya (“ghost houses”) along with schools, village greens and markets that are all deserted. Vanishing like this is the final step in the life-cycle of the ageing society: first small towns got fitter, now they are getting frailer, and soon they will disappear completely.
This journey brings challenges we have not seen before. Take a vital economic market like housing. There are an estimated eight million ghost houses in Japan. With such plentiful supply we might expect a slump, in which prices tumble, but something new and extreme happens: in a vanishing village there is no price, however low, at which people will buy. The market is not depressed, but frozen. This chill goes further than economics: when a town is disappearing, local politics becomes pointless: across Japan, one-fifth of seats in the 2015 local elections went uncontested.
The solution to these problems will need to be extreme: bulldozing unwanted properties, rewilding deserted areas, and finding new ways to engage rural voters and politicians. Ageing is itself a pandemic, one that we will need to begin tackling as soon as Covid-19 is under control.
Richard Davies is an economist and author. His book, Extreme Economies, is published by Penguin.
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