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Japan’s Employment Lesson for the Entrepreneur

The singer Cher once said, “Some guy said to me: Don’t you think you’re too old to sing Rock n’ Roll? I said: You’d better check with Mick Jagger.”

There was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal back in November titled “Elderly Japanese Fill Jobs.” It speaks of an HR desperation in many of Japan’s companies. The WSJ notes that “despite Japan’s reputation for economic sluggishness, Tokyo is flooded with help-wanted signs.” The unemployment rate there is less than 3%, the lowest since 1995. There is simply a dearth of Japanese workers.

Well, it turns out that Japan’s employment needs are increasingly being filled by seniors. The number of employed Japanese 65 or older has risen by 33% in five years and the phenomenon is growing. Japan has no choice. It is a country that is slowly aging and dying.

The US is in nowhere near Japan’s demographic extremis. (For one thing it has more open immigration policies.) However, there is a growing phenomenon of US jobs going unfilled. Increasingly some of this vacuum is being filled by seniors here, too.

Note last year’s Pew Research Center’s analysis of employment data (http://www.bls.gov/CPS/). Pew calculates 18.8% of Americans 65 and older, or nearly 9 million people, report being employed, continuing a steady increase that dates back to 2000 when just 12.8% of 65 and older Americans, or about 4 million people, said they were working.

I first became aware of this phenomenon attending an unrelated speech by Deepak Chopra, hosted at the New York Inc. Business Owner’s Council in 2011. Chopra’s talk was pleasant enough, but I came wide awake when Mr. Chopra, in an aside, noted Bill Clinton telling him over lunch that there were millions of US jobs going unfilled. This was at the height of the US recession. I remember thinking “How in God’s name can we have an official unemployment rate of 9.2% and a real unemployment rate of 16% and have so many jobs going unfilled?” I was dubious. However, I checked it out and it was bloody well true! Furthermore, many of these jobs-gone-begging were high-paying.

I am convinced that the solution to this employment conundrum lies in fuller utilization of seniors. Despite economic recovery, the pool of unemployed older job seekers has grown exponentially. The reasons for this are several. Here are three.

  • People are simply healthier. 70 is the new 50. The Associated Press LifeGoesStrong.com report finds that most boomers consider old age now to begin at 70, and over a quarter of boomers aver that you’re not old till you’re 80.
    401-Ks often have become 201-Ks and seniors cannot afford to retire.
  • Seniors no longer trust the “guaranteed” government programs will be there for them. Many seniors see themselves facing a coming age of austerity and entitlement cutbacks.
  • America glorifies youth. But, like good football and baseball teams, there is corporate health in mixing seasoned players with rookies. An increasing glut of seniors seeking work can change the workplace for the better. According to the NY Times, Dr. Edward Glazer of Harvard cites studies in Britain and Germany which find many positive correlations between labor-force participation among the elderly with the young.

I think there are particular opportunities for small business and nimble entrepreneurs to take advantage of hide-bound HR doctrines which are quite out of date and old-fashioned. Companies are often letting go the very people they are most in need of–the people who are least immediately replaceable–to worship at the altar of youth. This lemming-like HR foolishness offers small business a chance to lure some of these older, wiser players into a salubrious new cultural mix at a discount.

I hark back here to the current extreme employment conundrums of Japan mentioned above. The WSJ quotes Japanese entrepreneur Hinoda Sangyo, director Kaori Fujita, who says hiring older workers allows a small company like her’s to attract talent from bigger companies. (However, she does worry about finding younger workers to whom this gerontological knowledge can be passed onto.)

Deborah Banda, a senior adviser at AARP recently said, “Older workers are going to change the workforce as profoundly as women did.” Smart entrepreneurs will be early adopters of this coming wave of exploiting useful older working persons.

So old folks may well be the future HR solution for small business enterprise. This is not the paradox it seems. Perhaps 70 really is the new 50. With growing longevity and health consciousness, we will all be productive longer. I cannot imagine myself or most entrepreneurial colleagues embracing a twilight of idleness.

Andre Marois once said, “Growing old is no more than a bad habit which a busy man has no time to form.” Amen, Brother Andre.

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