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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Japanese Labour Force

The Japanese labour force has risen for the first time in eight years as women and those over 60 are drawn back to the jobs market in a sign of the strength of Japan’s cyclical recovery, now in its fifth year.

The willingness of those who left the jobs market to re-enter also shows the mechanisms by which the labour market might respond to the challenges of an ageing society, which is shrinking the size of the traditional workforce.

An analysis in Monday’s Nikkei newspaper found that Japan’s labour force, comprising those in jobs as well as those seeking work, rose by 150,000 to 66.54m in the year to April.

Separate data released on Monday by the labour ministry showed the total number or regular employees rose 0.6 per cent in March from a year earlier, with full-timers up 0.6 per cent, outpacing the rise in part-timers, up 0.3 per cent.

Part of the explanation is that people discouraged from looking for work have come back to the labour market amid brighter job prospects, say labour economists.

Recent surveys show that after years of excess labour capacity there are now more jobs available than job-seekers to fill them. Earlier this year, the ratio rose to 104 jobs per 100 applicants, though it has since slipped back marginally.

According to official figures, the number of women in the labour force has risen 220,000 in the past three years to 27.52m. By last year, there were also 9.67m people aged 60 or over either working or looking for work, a 450,000 increase from five years earlier.

Until 2000, the official retirement age was 60, but this is now being raised incrementally to 65 by 2013.

The Bank of Japan has been carefully monitoring the labour market which it views as a vital component in ensuring sustainable growth. Bank officials say every business sector is now suffering from labour shortages, which could push up wages and lead to further hiring of people who had drifted out of the labour market.

Many companies, the BoJ said in its recent six-monthly outlook report, are “experiencing constraints arising from insufficient labour”, the strongest in more than a decade.

Richard Jerram, economist at Macquarie Securities, said the rise in workers was a cyclical improvement and did not mean Japan could buck its long-term demographics.

Japan’s baby-boom generation is expected to start retiring on mass from next year.

That could see a resumption of a fall in the workforce, which had been declining at about 0.6 per cent a year, economists say.

In 2004, the number of men aged between 17 and 64 fell by 170,000. About a fifth of Japan’s population, which began to shrink overall last year, is aged over 65.

Atsushi Seike, a labour economist at Keio university, said the workforce was bound to get older as people lived longer and as changing pension rules forced people to delay their retirement longer.

However, this did not mean Japan’s unemployment rate, now 4.1 per cent, would return to previous levels. In 1992, he said, when the labour market was last as tight as now, unemployment was 2.2 per cent.

Older workers and part-time workers – the latter category of now accounts for a third of workers – spent longer between jobs than full-time younger workers, he said, pushing up the “structural unemployment rate”.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Japan A Suitable Place For Children?

The Japanese newspaper Asahi this weekend published the results of a survey carried out on behalf of the Japenese cabinet office into attitudes towards having children in Japan, South Korea, France, Sweden and the US.

Whereas in Europe and the United States respondents tended to indicate they expected to have all the children they wanted, of those Japanese interviewed who said that they want to have more children, 53.1 percent said they do not plan to do so. More than half of the South Koreans said the same.

When asked whether they considered Japan a suitable place to bear and raise children, 50.3 percent of the Japanese respondents completely or somewhat disagreed. In South Korea, 79.8 percent said their country is unsuitable for raising children. In contrast, 97.7 percent of Swedes said their country is suitable, while the figures were 78.2 percent in the United States and 68 percent in France.

These results whilst not conclusive about anything do put me in mind of Wolfgang Lutz's fertility trap hypothesis. Basically the idea here would be that once low fertility has continued for a significant time (low fertility is defined by Lutz as below 1.5TFR, and Japan has now been below the 2.1TFR replacement level for several decades) it may be hard to raise the expectations of people about the number of children they are likely to have, especially if economic conditions at the same time exert pressure on your capacity to do so. Japan would therefore be a classic case of such a possibility. The latter point seems to be reinforced by the latest findings in another Asahi survey, which suggested many people in Japan seem to feel that their living standards have deteriorated during the Koizumi era.

Forty-two percent of those responding to an Asahi newspaper survey said their livelihoods deteriorated under the leadership of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. Just 18 percent said they are now better off.....

Japan is just beginning to consider the social costs of some of Koizumi's policies. During his tenure, the government has trimmed pension and health benefits. Among other changes, inheritance tax laws were altered to simplify the transfer of large assets, and capital-gains taxes were lowered......

At the same time, Koizumi hasn't matched Japan's debt sales with the kinds of tax cuts that might benefit the broader economy. Japan doesn't need to make rich people who invest in stocks or real estate even richer; what it needs is babies.

Because of a low birthrate of 1.26 children per woman, Japan's population actually shrank in 2005. If you are going to cut taxes, why not do it for young families to boost the nation's birthrate? Without a significant increase in the number of births, Japan may never get out from under its debt load. Its debt-to- gross-domestic-product ratio is about 151 percent, the highest among developed nations.