TOKYO -- A longshoreman at the Port of Osaka has not only seen the future, he's wearing it.
The man, who is in his 50s, works for Tatsumi Shokai, a containership terminal operator. His job involves plenty of lifting, and lately, his back has been paying the price. That changed when, for the first time, he donned an Assist Suit -- a motorized contraption that helps the wearer hoist heavy objects.
"This will allow me to keep working," he said of the device. This and other creative ideas for extending labor longevity could help to keep Japan's economy working, too, as the nation's population grays and shrinks.
Dock work is not a popular job choice for today's young Japanese, who see it as too labor intensive. Worried about the aging of its workforce, Tatsumi brought in the Assist Suit, which reduces the burden on the back by reading the wearer's movements with a sensor.
"If the number of workers decreases because of the aging population, the solution is to find ways to save manpower," said Hiromichi Fujimoto, president of Activelink -- the company that developed the suit. Activelink, which is based in the city of Nara, plans to start mass producing the Assist Suit in the next business year.
Japan's working population is forecast to decrease to 56.83 million in 2030, from 65.77 million last year. This is estimated to shave 0.9 of a percentage point off the nation's potential economic growth rate, which is currently around 0.5% per year. Contraction could result.
But there is hope: The government thinks the workforce can be expanded by 2.4 million people through the employment of more seniors. The nation has long prided itself on its "lifetime employment" system, in which many individuals stay with one employer until retirement.
That definition may be about to change. The tricky part will be changing it without putting an undue burden on companies.
Time to get flexible
Already, the number of workers aged 60 and older has begun to increase. This is due to a legal revision requiring companies to retain employees who wish to stay on the payroll until 65.
This, however, creates a cost burden. Mizuho Research Institute estimates that corporate Japan's labor expenses will grow by 1.4 trillion yen ($12.7 billion) in fiscal 2025 as companies carry workers longer. If the government tries to avert the looming shortage by pushing companies to keep workers even after they reach 65, it is likely to mean fewer opportunities and lower pay for young people.
What Japan really needs is a flexible labor market that can present job opportunities for seniors without relying on their original employers. The government should take steps, such as deregulation of temporary staffing services, to create such an environment.
A flexible employment system and technological advances could be a powerful combination.
Michitaka Hirose, a professor at the University of Tokyo, has begun an experiment to create a "virtual worker" with advanced skills. This worker would have a number of brains behind it. The idea is to connect seniors through the cloud, assuming that, together, they can perform tasks that would be difficult if done by one person.
Hirose believes that by pooling retirees' specialized knowledge this way, they can make contributions comparable to those of the working generation -- without putting in a lot of hours individually.