Shigekazu Miyazaki is spending what should have been his retirement 25,000 feet in the air. Miyazaki, a pilot with nearly four decades’ experience at All Nippon Airways, Japan’s largest airline, left the carrier last year at its mandatory retirement age of 65.
But rather than take up golf or fishing, Miyazaki since April has been piloting 39-seat propeller planes for Oriental Air Bridge, a tiny airline that connects the southwestern city of Nagasaki to a group of remote islands. “I never would have thought I’d still be flying at 65,” Miyazaki, who is trim and has a deep voice and a full head of grey hair, said before a recent flight. “But I’m still healthy, and I love to fly, so why not do it as long as I can?”
A man in his seventh decade extending his commercial flying career still qualifies as a novelty in Japan — but maybe not for long. The ageing of Japan’s workforce is prompting a rethinking of traditional career paths and government safety nets. The country has the world’s longest life expectancy, little immigration and a dwindling population of young workers, the result of decades of low birth rates. In June, the Japanese government said the number of births last year fell below 1 million for the first time since it began tracking the figure in 1899. All that makes older workers more crucial to the economy.
More than half of Japanese men over 65 do some kind of paid work, according to government surveys, compared with a third of American men and as little as 10 per cent in parts of Europe. Japan’s economy is beginning to hum again, thanks largely to demand for its exports, but its lack of workers could limit growth.
Unemployment is a rock-bottom 2.8 per cent, and companies are scrambling to find staff. At the same time, retiring baby boomers are straining the pension system, prompting the government to raise the age at which older people can collect benefits. Japan may offer a peek into the near future for other developed countries with ageing workforces.
“If places like Germany and the US are raising the age where people can collect pensions to 67, there’s no reason Japan shouldn’t go to 70,” said Atsushi Seike, an expert on labour economics at Keio University in Tokyo. “We’re reaching a point where a 40-year career is just half the average lifespan, and having people become inactive too early is unsustainable.”
Older workers may also partly explain the puzzle of Japan’s stagnant wages, which have barely budged despite low unemployment. Older workers generally earn much less than at the peak of their careers, offsetting increases among the young and middle-aged. Oriental Air Bridge had never hired a pilot Miyazaki’s age before, but, with skilled pilots in short supply nationwide, it has been expanding its recruiting.
For Miyazaki, the choice to keep flying was a luxury. As a captain at All Nippon, where he flew Boeing 767s, primarily to Southeast Asia, he earned the equivalent of several hundred thousand dollars a year plus a generous pension. Oriental Air Bridge pays him only about a third of his peak salary, but he says he does not mind.
“The jets I used to fly were highly automated,” he said. “But now, with the propeller planes, I can enjoy a freer, more visual kind of flying. It means getting back to the basics as a pilot.”
In the cockpit of Miyazaki’s Bombardier Dash 8, flying still looks plenty complicated. During a recent flight back to Nagasaki from Tsushima, a rugged island of 30,000 residents, Miyazaki scanned a dashboard crammed with instruments and went over checklists with a co-pilot 20 years his junior. He acknowledged having been “a little uneasy” about studying for the new licence that he needed to fly the Dash 8s, a process that took eight months.
Mastering each new routine or procedure, he estimated, required 50 per cent more repetitions than it would have when he attended flight school in the 1970s. “When you’re young, you can pull an all-nighter,” he said. “But I read the textbooks in half-hour chunks. At my age, you have to manage your time.”
Miyazaki left his wife behind in Tokyo when he took the job in Nagasaki, but he said she supported his choice. “She wants me to work as long as I’m physically able.”
Some jobs in Japan are becoming distinctly grey. More than half of Japanese taxi drivers are over 60, according to the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, while less than 10 per cent are under 40. Morimasa Mizunoya, a retired jeweller, recently signed up for work at a Tokyo seniors’ Centre, under a government-sponsored programme that matches older workers with employers offering short-term and part-time jobs.
It is a “gig economy” platform without the smartphone app: Seniors register in person, while would-be employers call or email the centre with offers. “My eyes started going, so that was the end of jewellery,” Mizunoya said as he pasted a sheet of fresh white paper onto a traditional Japanese sliding door. A building owner needed 60 extra-large doors repapered, a job Mizunoya and another retiree hoped to finish in about two weeks.
Normally they made 1,400 yen a door, or about $13, but the bigger ones paid more. “The money’s not great, but it’s something to do,” said Mizunoya, who said he spent most of his non-work days playing Go, the ancient board game, and lived off money from a real estate investment and the extra he earned with the doors.
Yoshimitsu Hori, who runs the job programme at the seniors’ Centre, said demand for workers exceeded supply. Not all jobs were popular, though. The most numerous requests were for people to clean apartments and offices, which few wanted to do. Stuffing envelopes, affixing labels to empty bento boxes and taking tickets at museums were viewed as better gigs.
At Oriental Air Bridge, snagging a pilot of any age from a big international airline is a coup. The company’s office is a corrugated tin building at the edge of Nagasaki Airport, and its outdated hangars are too small for its two planes to fit completely inside. It is planning to expand, with new routes and a sharper focus on tourism.
Miyazaki said he swam twice a week to maintain his health, and he underwent more physical testing than younger pilots — MRIs, electrocardiograms, treadmill tests for stamina.
Under current Japanese regulations, he will have to stop flying commercially at 68, but the government has started examining whether to extend the maximum age to 70. “I have at least three years left, maybe five,” he said. “As long as I have my health, I want to make the most of them.”
— New York Times News Service