Here’s a grim fact: According to the diaper maker Unicharm, in Japan, adult diapers now outsell baby diapers. That’s because a quarter of the country’s population is 65 or older. By 2060, that proportion will hit 40 percent.
What adjustments have to be made when so many people grow old simultaneously? To take one example, after a recent surge in accidents involving older drivers, the government began testing the Robot Shuttle, an autonomous bus intended for use in rural areas, where Japan’s shrinking pains have hurt the most. Other tweaks include slowing down escalators and equipping shopping carts with magnifying glasses.
It’s long been observed that Japan’s aging doesn’t bode well for its economy. Lots of old people means a financial drain on both the private and public sectors, as health-care and pension costs skyrocket and productivity declines. But the news isn’t all bad: Amid this elder boom, a new, 100 trillion yen ($800 billion) consumer category has emerged, known as “the silver market.”
Millions of Japanese seniors who have long been saving for retirement find themselves at the center of a commercial bonanza. The products vying for their attention range from Docomo’s Raku-Raku 4, a smartphone that’s “easier to hear” and also has jumbo screen icons, to Fujisoft’s Palro, a $6,000 “carebot” that combats dementia through trivia games and fitness drills. Even video-game arcades, long a bastion of youth, are wooing golden-agers with benches for resting; arcade staffers are encouraged to get certified as senior-friendly “service assistants.”