Tokyo // Many people his age would be happy to slip on a cardigan and put their feet up, but not Teruo Sugiura.
Several days a week, the 86-year-old goes to a seniors’ work centre in Tokyo, where he repairs traditional Japanese sliding doors.
The job does not pay much, but that has not stopped Mr Sugiura turning up for the past 20 years — one of millions of elderly Japanese collecting wages after retirement age.
“I’m working to keep my body in good shape,” said the former sweets salesman at a department store. “I think it’s wrong not to be doing anything. There’s no point staying at home twiddling my thumbs.”
Japan’s silver-haired workforce is everywhere these days — from wrinkled men waving glow sticks at building sites to checkout counter clerks or caregivers for the very old.
This geriatric working class shows no sign of shrinking — more than 20 per cent of Japan’s over-65s still work.
That is the highest proportion among developed economies and a figure that will probably soar as the pool of younger workers falls and the fast-ageing population squeezes a strained social welfare system.
People older than 65 are expected to account for about 40 per cent of the population by 2060 as Japan wrestles with a low birth rate.
Meanwhile, the country’s labour force — employed and unemployed people between 15 and 64 — may diminish by more than 27 million workers — about 42 per cent — in the same time frame, according to a government advisory panel.
Demand for workers is high and Japan’s unemployment rate for January was an enviable 3.2 per cent, a two-decade low and well below many European nations and the United States.
In response to demographic shifts, the government is gradually raising the official retirement age from 65 from 61 by 2025. It will be raised to 62 next month.
Tokyo is putting pressure on companies to keep workers longer, or to hire older employees. Some companies have responded, including car maker Honda, which has said it will raise its working age by five years to 65 starting in April, in a move that could affect tens of thousands of workers.
Meanwhile, nationwide convenience-store chain Circle K Sunkus has trained a handful of elderly people in a nod to the ageing labour pool.
“There is very strong market pressure for employers to keep older people,” said Atsushi Seike, a professor of labour economics and president of Tokyo’s Keio University.
“The drastic decline of the workforce will have a significant impact on the behaviour of employers. Many are willing to boost the number of older workers, even at major companies, and I think this trend will continue — or even accelerate — in the future.”
More than half a million older Japanese find work through the government-subsidised National Silver Human Resources Centre Association, including door repairman Mr Sugiura and 63-year-old Junko Kondo.
Ms Kondo’s government pension is not enough to let her do everything she wants.
“I’m saving the money I make here,” she says, as she assembles packages for wrapping salt sold at luxury shops.
“I’ll use it to buy presents for my grandchildren, or a sweater, or maybe just lunch for myself.”
The reasons for Japan’s elderly staying in the workforce vary, but for people like Taeko Mishima, the extra money could be a lifesaver.
The 74-year-old worries she and her husband’s pensions are not enough to cover the cost of nursing homes with medical care.
“My pension isn’t enough to pay for that,” Ms Mishima said.
* Agence France-Presse