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Japan's older adults dropping out of workforce due to fear of coronavirus

In this December 2018 file photo, an employment information session for older people is held in Nagoya, in the central Japan prefecture of Aichi. (Mainichi/Atsuko Ota)

The novel coronavirus outbreak has greatly decreased the number of older people in Japan's workforce, raising the question of how workplaces for older adults will change amid virus prevention measures and an increased demand for technical savvy.

In May, as the spread of the coronavirus continued, two female employees in their 60s at a major convenience store chain in Saitama Prefecture, north of Tokyo, quit one after another. One of the women had opened up to the 45-year-old female proprietor of the store in April that her family was worried that she was unable to take time off from work. The owner is now looking for people to work in the early morning and during the day, but older adults and homemakers, who comprised the majority of applicants in the past now do not respond to her calls for applicants. "Going forward, people will probably steer clear of jobs at convenience stores, which had to stay in operation even when the coronavirus was spreading the most," she said with a sigh.

Older people are at a higher risk of getting serious symptoms of COVID-19 after being infected with the coronavirus than younger people, which has them worried about working. As of June 10, those in their 60s comprised the largest percentage of people in Japan with serious COVID-19 symptoms requiring hospitalization, totaling 18%. Following close behind were those in their 70s at 16.5%, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

According to the Labor Force Survey carried out by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, the seasonal survey figure for the number of people employed in April declined by 1.07 million compared to the previous month. The greatest drop was seen among those aged 65 and older, with the figure falling 330,000 people to 8.77 million. It was the first time in eight months the number dipped below 9 million people. Because older adults tend to work as nonregular workers, they are disproportionately prone to employment adjustments. But there were also a large number of people who chose to quit their jobs and who stopped looking for work to mitigate the risk of contracting the coronavirus.

For many, however, it is difficult to maintain a living with pensions only, and they have to look for work. According to the 2018 Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions conducted by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the average annual income of a household comprising people aged 65 or older is about 3.35 million yen (approx. $31,000), which falls far below the average household income of around 5.52 million yen. (approx. 52,000). In one survey, 55.1% of older households said they were "struggling."

Tokyo Shigoto Center (literally, "Tokyo work center") in the capital's Chiyoda Ward, which provides support for people looking to hire or to find employment in Tokyo, received some 300 consultations from people aged 65 and older between May 25, when the state of emergency declaration was lifted, and June 9.

"A lot of people who come to us lost their jobs due to corona, and are now looking for their next job," a representative for the center said. Meanwhile, a 62-year-old woman who sought help from the center had said that she had been in face-to-face customer service before, but quit out of fear of infection, and was now looking for a clerical job that wouldn't involve coming into contact with customers.

"Older adults are making the choice to temporarily stop looking for work because of infection risks," Yasutoshi Nishimura, minister in charge of economic revitalization, told a June 19 press conference. "I would like to work on arranging an environment for them in which they can return to work."

It's also true that as workplaces advance digitalization, the fact that there are a lot of older people who are unaccustomed to teleworking will pose a challenge. BNP Paribas' chief economist, Ryutaro Kono, says, "The government has considered older adults as an important source of labor. Considering that the risks of infection have not completely disappeared, the government should proactively come up with measures to assist the use of information technology that can be readily used by everyone."

(Japanese original by Atsuko Motohashi, Business News Department)

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