Demographics and Robots

Stephen DeAngelis

January 14, 2008

I have mentioned in previous posts dealing with demographics that the Japanese, who have maintained xenophobic immigration policies, have tried hard to replace an aging work force with robots so that they don’t have to rely on immigrant labor. Although they have had to recruit Filipino nurses, the Japanese are still looking for the automated solution to bolster their work force [“Demographic Crisis, Robotic Cure?” by Blaine Harden, Washington Post, 7 January 2008].

“With a surfeit of the old and a shortage of the young, Japan is on course for a population collapse unlike any in human history. What ails this prosperous nation could be treated with babies and immigrants. Yet many young women here do not want children, and the Japanese will not tolerate a lot of immigrants. So government and industry are marching into the depopulated future with the help of robots — some with wheels, some with legs, some that you can wear like an overcoat with muscles. A small army of these machines, which has attracted huge and appreciative crowds, is on display this winter at the Great Robot Exhibition in Tokyo’s National Museum of Nature and Science. The Japanese are delighted by robots that look human. Honda’s ASIMO can dance and serve tea. Toyota has a humanoid robot that plays ‘Pomp and Circumstance’ on the violin — rather robotically. But engineers say it’s the ‘service robots,’ which can’t dance a lick and don’t look remotely human, that can bail out Japan, which has the world’s largest proportion of residents over 65 and smallest proportion of children under 15. One such gizmo, on display at the show, can spoon-feed the elderly. Others are being designed to hoist them onto a toilet and phone a nurse when they won’t take their pills.”

This approach has profound implications for globalization, which is powered by the relatively free movement of people, resources, and capital. In a recent post, I wrote about the continuing movement of people looking for a better life, even if it is to be found in a place just slightly better off than from where they originated [Economic Emigration]. If the “robotic solution” to aging populations catches on elsewhere, then the world will have an enormous mismatch of people and jobs than can only lead to unrest and unhappiness — unless the economic conditions of those living in poverty can be improved in the places where they reside. This is one of the purposes of Development-in-a-Box™ — to improve the economic conditions in emerging market countries. The big question is can it work?

“Toyota, the world’s largest car company, announced last month that service robots would soon become one of its core businesses. The government heavily subsidizes development of these machines. Other cheerleaders for robots include universities and much of the news media. Not everyone, though, is cheering. There are critics who describe the robot cure for an aging society as little more than high-tech quackery. They say that robots are a politically expedient palliative that allows politicians and corporate leaders to avoid wrenchingly difficult social issues, such as Japan’s deep-seated aversion to immigration, its chronic shortage of affordable day care and Japanese women’s increasing rejection of motherhood. ‘Robots can be useful, but they cannot come close to overcoming the problem of population decline,’ said Hidenori Sakanaka, former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau and now director of the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a research group in Tokyo. ‘The government would do much better spending its money to recruit, educate and nurture immigrants,’ he said. The scale of the coming demographic disaster, assuming present trends continue, is without precedent, according to Sakanaka and many other analysts.”

How big is the crisis? Judge for yourself.

“Population shrinkage began here three years ago and is gathering pace. Within 50 years, the population, now 127 million, will fall by a third, the government projects. Within a century, two-thirds of the population will be gone. That would leave Japan, now the world’s second-largest economy, with about 42 million people. The workforce would shrink even faster, thanks to the dearth of children under 15, whose numbers have been falling for 26 consecutive years and now reflect a record-low 13.6 percent of the population. Within 20 years, the workforce will fall by 10 percent, according to Goldman Sachs, the investment firm. It estimates that within 30 years, Japan will have just two workers for each retiree; within 50 years, two retirees for every three workers. Pension and health care systems will be at risk of collapse.”

With such dire predictions confronting them (and yet xenophobia still strong), robots offer some semblance of hope to politicians.

“Robots can help make all this more affordable and less disruptive, said Masakatsu G. Fujie, a professor of mechanical engineering at Waseda University in Tokyo. In a recent lecture to foreign journalists, he said service robots could help reduce government spending on health care, take over many dreary service jobs and prop up Japan’s ‘societal vitality.’ Still, if Japan is to have any chance of holding on to its status as a major economic power, it needs human beings by the millions, and it needs to start importing them soon, according to Sakanaka. He argues that Japan has no rational alternative but to open its doors to at least 10 million new immigrants over the next five decades. This is a tall order. Among highly developed countries, Japan has always ranked near the bottom in the percentage of foreign-born residents. In the United States, about 12 percent are foreign-born; in Japan, just 1.6 percent. Highly restrictive and aggressively enforced immigration laws have broad support from the Japanese public, which blames immigrants for crime, impolite behavior and untidiness. Sakanaka’s immigration proposal, at least for the time being, has no serious backing among major political leaders. But the country ranks first in robot use. Forty percent of the world’s robots are at work here, mostly in industrial jobs. The government prefers spending money on robot development rather than on immigrants, Sakanaka said, because robots do not have a political downside. ‘Politicians avoid the immigration issue because it doesn’t lead to a vote,’ he said. ‘They should be thinking about Japan’s future, but they are not.’ Kathy Matsui, Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs, says robot promotion is a crowd-pleasing way for government and business to dance away from the core causes of Japan’s low birthrate.”

Perhaps we should take some comfort in the fact that so many analysts insist that humans can’t be completely replaced by robots. What’s really lacking Japan is a desire to marry. Wives have traditionally played a secondary role in society and have often been ill-treated. Courses are now being offered that teach men how to treat their wives with more love and respect. But the harm, apparently, has been done.

“A principal reason for the low birthrate in Japan is the increasing refusal of young women to marry. Government figures show that the percentage of women 25 to 29 who stay single has more than doubled since 1980, to 54 percent from 24 percent. If Japanese women do marry and have children, they drop out of the workforce at far higher rates than women in other wealthy countries. The primary reason is because they cannot find affordable day care, according to Matsui and many others. Matsui said affordable child care and relaxed immigration rules that allowed working mothers to hire foreign-born nannies would almost certainly keep more women in the wor
kforce — and could help raise the birthrate. Asked why government and industry here are so taken with robots, Matsui said: ‘They are a nice excuse not to address the issue of immigration. They do not cause crime. They are not foreign people. And the Japanese are good at making robots.’ At Toyota, robot-builders say it is not their job to answer big-picture questions. They focus, instead, on how to make machines that help elderly people live comfortably and are safe, affordable and profitable.”

It will be interesting to watch how Japanese politicians deal with demographic challenges that are rushing rapidly at them. Demographics is not something that you can turn around overnight. It still take a couple of decades to produce and raise children. Even if they turned their birthrate around today, those ready to join the workforce in Japan until around 2030. In a country fascinated by technology, the people have opted for machines over men. It will be a decision that could haunt Japan fifty years from now. Germany, which is confronting a similar demographic challenge, offers economic incentives to have children and has started a multi-million campaign to make the country more child friendly.