The elderly are among the most vulnerable in any society, and often end up being the canary in the coal mine when it comes to economic imbalance.
In Japan, this is playing out dramatically: Although the country has a reputation for respecting the elderly, it is currently facing a crisis. Demographic shifts mean that the senior population is sometimes left without family to support them after they can no longer work. A recent Bloomberg article revealed that some elderly women are even finding better support in prisons than outside.
Orissa, India, faced a similar situation in the late 1990s when their elderly population were left outside of the country’s support system. While India and Japan are significantly different, and struggle with very distinct economic and social problems, both countries have experienced rapid social change that has left the aged population behind.
As economics scholar Pradeep Kumar Panda notes in Economic and Political Weekly, a number of factors have contributed to this outcome. Panda points to a decline in the joint family system, eroded by changing values and fewer children per family, which inevitably increases the burden of care. Advances in equal rights sent more women into the workforce. This was good for the economy and social standing, but one inevitable effect was that fewer women were at home to take care of older family members.
According to Panda, not only were the elderly of Orissa, India, left without financial resources, they were also left without crucial family ties. A significant portion of the senior population was living alone. While that didn’t indicate they were entirely without assistance, “for these persons, the amount of support is likely to be lower, and the degree of loneliness and social isolation is likely to be high,” Panda indicates.
These findings seem relevant in current-day Japan. As one prisoner interviewed for Bloomberg put it:
“I was alone every day and feeling very lonely. My husband gave me a lot of money, and people always told me how lucky I was, but money wasn’t what I wanted. It didn’t make me happy at all. I enjoy my life in prison more. There are always people around, and I don’t feel lonely here. When I got out the second time, I promised that I wouldn’t go back. But when I was out, I couldn’t help feeling nostalgic.”
The economy is so often represented in figures, statistics, projections, and jargon that we forget that it is ultimately the study of the forces that shape human lives. In Japan, as in Orissa, the effects of demography and policy have become devastatingly personal.