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Aging Asia deserves a little R.E.S.P.E.C.T.

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Mick Jagger, who will soon become a father for the eighth time, performs during a concert in Uruguay on Feb. 16.   © Reuters

This year, Japan's Respect for the Aged Day public holiday fell on Sept. 19. Taiwan's Senior Citizens' Day -- also known as the Double Ninth Festival -- falls on Oct. 9. The older you get, the more sense such celebrations make. After all, the elderly are merely our future selves. People who have succeeded in aging gracefully -- or even disgracefully -- are worth celebrating.

It was inspiring to read recently in the Nikkei Asian Review about Fukutaro Fukui, the world's oldest salaryman, who continued to commute to work until retiring at the age of 101. It was also good to learn that, in a year when several rock stars have passed away, Mick Jagger, 73 years old, will soon become a father for the eighth time.

Staying active, carrying on doing what you do best -- these factors are crucial to well-being, not just personally but on a macroeconomic level, too. Integrating older people into the workforce is a key challenge of the 21st century. Societies that offer them respect will likely manage the job better -- with benefits for everyone, young and old.

In Western countries where pay grade defines status, there is a psychological barrier to career downshifting. In Asian countries influenced by Confucianism, elderly people are automatically worthy of deference. In the Tokyo branch of the investment bank where I once worked, the elderly lady who cleaned the kitchen was addressed in keigo (respect language) by the much younger and better-paid Japanese staff. In the London office, such menial work was done by members of ethnic minorities who were invisible to the highfliers.

Japan is the world's most advanced country in terms of aging, with 27% of the population now above 65, but many other countries are following in its footsteps. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, by 2050 Europe as a whole will be older than Japan is now, as will Asian countries such as Thailand, South Korea, Singapore and Sri Lanka. The gray superpower will be China, with a staggering 350 million people over 65.

SILVER SATISFACTION How countries cope with this rapid transformation is as much a political question as an economic one. In many Western countries the response so far has been mass immigration, which pumps up economic growth and corporate revenues, but not necessarily living standards. Ultimately it is no solution. The immigrants themselves will age and ever-increasing numbers of newcomers will be required to hold back the demographic tide. Meanwhile, as professor Paul Collier of University of Oxford notes in his book "Exodus," social cohesion and cooperative behavior are likely to be weakened. The political consequences are already visible in the rise of populism in Europe and America.

Wealthy Asian countries take a more sensible approach, recognizing that greater longevity, far from being a problem, means more years of health and productive activity. The percentage of males over 65 who work is 42% in South Korea, 32% in Singapore and 29% in Japan, notes the U.S. Census Bureau. For France, the number is 3%, Belgium 4% and Italy 6%. Similar differentials exist in the numbers for women. In Asia, 60 is the new 40. In Europe it is the time to be winding down for a multi-decade vacation at taxpayers' expense.

According to Japan's Ministry of Labor, more than 80% of Japanese companies have systems of re-employing workers who have passed the retirement age. There is also a semi-governmental network of 3,000 "silver recruitment centers," where companies and individuals can hire older people for specific tasks. The 700,000 workers on their books are in high demand, as I discovered when I had to wait two months for a tree surgery job that required specialized skills and equipment.

The team that appeared in their hard hats at 8 a.m. sharp consisted of three men and two women -- all, I would guess, in their early 70s. They worked cheerfully in the sweltering heat, shinning up 5-meter-high ladders and deploying a mini-armory of machetes, chains and electric saws. Their handiwork was impeccable and their fee -- which was by no means cheap -- amply deserved.

Aging is as inevitable for countries as it is for individuals. Far from being a demographic disaster, as doomsters love to assert, it presents an opportunity to rethink our personal and societal goals. According to the 91-year-old Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister, the secret of longevity is to keep working and control your appetite; when something tastes delicious, stop eating. On Sept. 19 I reflected on these wise words while listening to the Rolling Stones.

Peter Tasker is an analyst with Tokyo-based Arcus Research.

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