Often one of the major problems facing Japan is said to be that is has a declining population. All sorts of scary statistics are used to paint an almost doomsday scenario where at some point there will be few young people left, the country will be composed mainly by the elderly and the economy will collapse.
The problem with this view is that it is dated and is based on 19th century economic thinking in that a major component of a nations growth is driven by an ever increasing population. However we are now in the 21st century, where humans will not be the main drivers behind productivity and where a smaller, healthier population will be good not only for a country, but good for the planet as well.
Periods of population decline are a frequent part of human history caused by such things as disease, famine and wars. However as the impact of these factors are reduced it is not a bad thing for population growth to also slow thus preventing over population, the effects of which are arguably worse than under-population.
People in developed countries are living longer and Japanese people are amongst the longest living in the world. As people live longer and healthier lives their productivity will be extended and they will no longer wish to retire at 65 and “go fishing” for 20 years.
In addition productivity in the 21st century will be driven largely by technology and it will not be too long before it is common for factories to be staffed by only a handful of staff, robots used in medical and nursing care and fully automated transport networks etc.
In other words this means a reduced population can still result in the productivity of a nation increasing. We also need to remember that companies with operations offshore also bring profits back to their home country and so in the case of Japan, the country has a virtual extended workforce scattered across the globe.
In a world where we face food and water shortages can there be any better way for a nation to survive than to live within it’s means? If the population of Japan declines and then stabilises would this not improve food security for the nation?
Let’s also not forget that a major cause of conflict in the 20th century (and throughout human history in fact) were nations trying to expand because they needed room to grow. Surely if we remove this need then the world is going to be a much more peaceful place?
The challenge therefore is for Japan to encourage family friendly policies so that it can stabilise it’s population through natural growth and not take knee jerk actions like implementing mass immigration programs as these can cause more problems than they solve.
Measures such as encouraging workplace childcare, workplace family friendly policies and some additional government financial support for families I feel would go much of the way towards stabilising the population in Japan and position the nation strongly for the 21st century and beyond.
(Edited 12th May, 2009)