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Commentary: Wanted – 80-year-old taxi drivers to ease Japan’s labour crunch

TOKYO: Would you trust an 80-year-old driver with your life on some of the developed world’s most complex streets? 

If you’re one of the millions visiting Tokyo, you might have to, if a plan to raise the age limit for taxi drivers by five years from the current 75 proceeds. But if the idea of a cab driver in their ninth decade gives you pause, you’re not alone: The discussion has met with criticism even in the typically elder-friendly local media, coming after years of programmes encouraging older motorists to return their licences amid an increase in accidents. 

The talks indicate the need for increasingly radical suggestions to deal with a labour crunch that is hitting Japan’s services sector especially hard.

As the economy has rebounded from COVID-19, the last of the slack in the jobs market has vanished. Over half of the country’s businesses say they can’t find enough full-time staff. 

Taxis, already dependent on older workers, are particularly hamstrung. The number of drivers in Japan has fallen 20 per cent since 2019. In fact, many are already over 75 years old; the government limit applies only to privately owned vehicles, with cab companies free to set their own retirement ages. Lifting a longstanding ban on ride-sharing is also on the cards. 

And it’s not just cabs that are struggling. Perhaps closer to home for Tokyo’s business travellers, Central Japan Railway’s Shinkansen bullet train will soon end food cart sales, a staple for any travelling workers, long used to relaxing over coffee, beer or the train’s famously hard-frozen ice cream.

Citing a staff shortage, the wagon sales will conclude this month, with riders encouraged to stock up before embarking (the Shinkansen has no dining car; only passengers on the luxury “green cars” will be able to order snacks to their seat from their smartphones).  

OPPORTUNITIES FOR A NEW GOLDEN AGE

These are just some of the shocks coming in a country where one in 10 people is now over 80. Though the working-age population has been declining for some time, Japan has coped by tapping previously ignored resources, most notably women.

But those easy gains are gone; the country now has one of the highest labour participation rates globally. Nearly 87 per cent of the working-age populace is employed, well above the 79 per cent average of countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

An ageing society would seem to inevitably lead to declining economic strength. But intriguingly, some see opportunity in this historic shift from too much supply to a surplus of demand.

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The longtime Japan watcher and economist Jesper Koll sees the shortage leading to a new “golden age” in which full-time jobs replace irregular youth employment, with wage increases and opportunities accruing to the younger generation. 

Junichi Makino, the chief economist at SMBC Nikko Securities Inc, expects the higher labour costs that will inevitably result to spur company investment in raising Japan’s unusually low labour productivity and lift economic growth. 

“Over the past 20 years, economic actors in Japan have moved to reduce wages and employment and curb capex amid a deflationary environment,” Makino writes. “From here though, Japan is set for a macro environment of insufficient supply, which will require more capex to bridge the gap, and we expect this to be an engine for economic growth to accelerate again.”

SUPPLEMENTING WITH FOREIGN WORKERS AND TECH

That optimistic outcome depends on the country finding solutions.

One of the most pressing issues is what’s being referred to as the “2024 Problem” – a looming logistics crisis that could hit next year, when regulations limiting overtime hours in the already stretched trucking industry will come into effect. Estimates say it could result in a 14 per cent drop in transportable cargo by 2025, ballooning to 34 per cent by 2030.

The government is scrambling for solutions, including cutting wasteful journeys by encouraging customers to avoid deliveries when no one is home.

Everything is on the table: The types of jobs that the country’s increasing number of foreign workers can take are being expanded, with bus drivers possibly next to be added. Self-driving cars and other automated solutions are being proposed.

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