Over at Reason, Pete Suderman has a great piece about how Japan is looking to robots to help care for its geriatric citizens. It’s funny and creepy and you should totally read it.
Japan probably has the worst demographic problem in the world. The country’s fertility rate has been below replacement (way below) for three generations. First, this slowed population growth to a halt; the contraction has now begun and will accelerate in the coming years. Today, Japan has just under 127 million people. If its fertility rate were to stay constant from here until the end of the century, Japan’s population would drop to 59.5 million. (Go and play with the U.N. Population Division numbers; it’s fascinating.)
But the real problem for Japan, as Suderman notes, isn’t total population: It’s the ratio of old people to young people, which is already skewed and will only get top-heavier with each passing year. Have a look at Japan’s population pyramid here and what you see will blow your mind: In 2050, Japan could have close to four times as many women over the age of 75 than girls under the age of 10. And that’s from the rosy-colored scenario where the fertility rate actually rebounds. If it stays constant, matters will be much worse.
So what’s Japan to do? The choices are (1) Make more babies; (2) Allow massive immigration; or (3) Build robots.
For a host of reasons too complicated to get into here (but helpfully expanded on in this fine book about demographics!) the Japanese have chosen Option #3. Which is where Suderman’s piece comes in, suggesting that this may be a larger technological hurdle than many futurists have assumed.
Instead, Suderman closes by hinting that what Japan really ought to do is consider Option #2:
For years, Japan has been notoriously resistant to immigration. Of its current population, less than two percent are from outside the country, and the nation has traditionally only allowed about 50,000 immigrant visas each year—far less than the 700,000 estimated to be necessary to keep population levels afloat.
In early 2014, reports suggested that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might allow for expanded immigration, perhaps as many as 200,000 newcomers each year. But by summer, he had backed off the idea. “In countries that have accepted immigration,” he declared on a Japanese TV show, according to The Financial Times, “there has been a lot of friction, a lot of unhappiness both for the newcomers and the people who already lived there.”
Robot workers might provide some assistance for the country’s aging population, but they won’t do much to solve the nation’s underlying fiscal problems: They don’t pay taxes, start businesses, or contribute directly to a growing economy. At best, they’ll make it easier for Japan to grow old. But unlike immigrants, they won’t make the country young again.
Suderman isn’t wrong—by many utilitarian measures, immigrants probably would be preferable to robots. But if you look at the question from Japan’s perspective, you can understand why the Japanese would find this pathway problematic.
For starters, look at the scale. In order for immigration to work as a demographic band-aid, Japan would need to move from 50,000 immigrants admitted annually to 700,000—that’s an increase of 1,400 percent, virtually overnight. Japan is 98.5 percent Japanese right now. That percentage would plummet over the course of just a few years.
There’s no real way to illustrate how large the consequences of this change might be. So let’s try a couple analogies: