Technology trumps demography

Although many refrain from saying it openly, the elderly are often resented as a burden on society. They are widely seen as a drain on the scarce resources available to younger generations.

If this were true it would surely be most apparent in Japan. At 47.3 years it has the second oldest median age of any country, according to the US Central Intelligence Agency. The only nation with a higher average, at 52.4 years, is the tiny city-state of Monaco.

Whatever else might be said about Japan’s government, at least its Society 5.0 programme attempts to work out how to use new technology to make the most of its relatively old population (see Briefing in this issue). The goal is not just to modernise the manufacturing sector – although that is a worthy aim – but to use technology such as artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles, big data, fintech, robots and wearable devices to transform society more broadly.

Such technologies could be beneficial in various ways. For those who are frail or have problems with mobility it could help with their care. For instance, wearables can monitor health conditions in real time as well as helping with prevention and therapies.

However, it should not be forgotten that most old people are not infirm. On the contrary, many of them are robust and willing to work, albeit part-time in many cases. New technology facilities this desire as it makes it easier for those without great physical strength or stamina to work productively. That means it should be easier to raise the retirement age than it was in the past. That in turn would make it possible to make better use of the accumulated knowledge and experience of older generations.

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But the benefit is not confined to the elderly, although that should be celebrated. It makes it possible to raise productivity across the economy. The higher the level of productivity – the amount that can be produced in a given amount of time – the more able a country is to support a dependent population generously.  

That applies as much to those below working age as those above it. A vibrant economy allows those in work to better support those who, for whatever reason, are unable to work.

Demography is not destiny. A dynamic economy which makes good use of high technology, can thrive even if a relatively small proportion of the population is engaged in productive labour.

Blaming older generations for social problems is not only wrong analytically but it turns society in on itself. It creates inter-generational conflict, rather than helping find ways to harness technology so that all can benefit from greater prosperity.

Daniel Ben-Ami, Deputy Editor of IPE

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