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Picture credit: Asian Scientist Magazine

Almost anybody with even a cursory knowledge of demographics and global labour markets can tell you that Japan is the canary in the coal mine for the developed world’s rapidly aging population, below-replacement fertility rate, and labour supply.

Japan has the second-highest median age (just under 49 years), and one of the lowest fertility rates (1.2 children per woman) of any country. In 2022, working-age people accounted for 59% of the population in Japan, down 9 points from 2000.

In 2010 Japan’s population was just over 128 million people, its current population is estimated to be just under 124 million with the country’s population currently declining at an average rate of 0.7% per year.

The percentage of Japanese companies with programs to employ people aged 70 and older more than doubled over the decade through 2022 to 39%, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.

Encouraging older people to work for longer is only a partial solution and other ways to boost the supply of labour in Japan are either unpopular or unsuccessful.

Successive Japanese governments have long been reluctant to admit unskilled or semi-skilled foreign labour and labour market participation amongst young mothers is not increasing despite an unemployment rate consistently below 3%, suggesting the availability of both part-time work and job flexibility is not meeting demand.

The looming major issue for Japanese society is the increasingly larger workforce required to adequately staff aged care facilities and provide in-home care.

The number of older people in Japan needing care is increasing, the number of workers available to provide that care is shrinking and unless the care sector is prepared to substantially increase wages to attract more local workers there is a huge problem looming just over the horizon.

The supposed cavalry coming over the hill has been the much-touted eventuality of robots taking the place of significant amounts of human labour in Japan’s aged care sector.

Japan has been developing robots to care for older people since the turn of the century with, by 2018, over USD 300 million having been invested by the national government on research and development for such robots.

Robotics companies and policy makers have promoted the idea that care robots will relieve the burden on human care workers and become a major new export industry for Japanese manufacturers.

Unfortunately, recent research suggests that the productivity gains hoped for have, largely not materialised.

James Wright, a research associate at the Alan Turing Institute and the author of Robots Won’t Save Japan: An Ethnography of Eldercare Automation, outlines the current situation in the MIT Technology Review, two months ago

“….the popularity of robots among Japanese people relies in large part on decades of relentless promotion by state, media, and industry. Accepting the idea of robots is one thing; being willing to interact with them in real life is quite another. What’s more, their real-life abilities trail far behind the expectations shaped by their hyped-up image. It’s something of an inconvenient truth for the robot enthusiasts that despite the publicity, government support, and subsidies—and the real technological achievements of engineers and programmers—robots don’t really feature in any major aspect of most people’s daily lives in Japan, including elder care.

Wright goes on to say that only 10% of over 9,000 elder-care institutions in Japan surveyed in 2019, had introduced any care robot. A 2021 study found that out of a sample of 444 people who provided home care, only 2% had experience with a care robot. The anecdotal evidence suggests robots are often only used for a short time before being discarded because they are more trouble than they are worth.

Wright’s conclusion is a major setback for the proponents of robot labour in the aged care sector.

“In short, the machines failed to save labor. The care robots themselves required care: they had to be moved around, maintained, cleaned, booted up, operated, repeatedly explained to residents, constantly monitored during use, and stored away afterwards. Indeed, a growing body of evidence from other studies is finding that robots tend to end up creating more work for caregivers.

In each (real life) case (studied), existing social and communication-­oriented tasks tended to be displaced by new tasks that involved more interaction with the robots than with the residents. Instead of saving time for staff to do more of the human labor of social and emotional care, the robots actually reduced the scope for such work.

While care robots are technologically sophisticated and those promoting them are (usually) well intentioned, they may act as a shiny, expensive distraction from tough choices about how we value people and allocate resources in our societies…

Alternative approaches are possible and, indeed, readily available. Most obviously, paying care workers more, improving working conditions, better supporting informal caregivers, providing more effective social support for older people, and educating people across society about the needs of this population could all help build more caring and equitable societies without resorting to techno-fixes…”

The promise of robots taking the place of human labour in aged care seems further off now than it was over two decades ago when such a possibility seemed both realistic and within reach.

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