Aging societies: lifelong learning, immigration, and social cohesion

Japan’s population has fallen by 284,000 in a single year. And it is fast aging: as of October, the proportion of over-65s stood at 24.1%, while the under-14s accounted for 13%.

Social aging is common across much of the world, as a result of rising longevity and falling fertility rates. But these figures confirm that Japan is unusually vulnerable to demographic aging, largely as a result of the country’s stance on immigration.

While the number of foreigners living in Japan has increased in the last decade, they still comprise below 3% of the population, and they are largely treated as temporary workers, who must pass a demanding certification test that relies on high-level Japanese language skills if they wish to stay on. Fewer than one in a hundred pass, and the result is short term movement by people who are therefore poorly integrated into their host society.

Little wonder, then, that Japanese policy makers have been pondering the importance of adult learning in recent years. But what is particularly interesting for me is that policy makers have developed polifices for lifelong learning that are primarily aimed at promoting social integration, volunteering and networking, in a process that Makino Atsushi has called “community development through lifelong learning”.

Countries like the UK have relatively high levels of immigration, and are therefore relatively immune from the sharp skills shortages that would affect a more insular and protected labour market, but they have not treated social cohesion as such a priority.

Japanese society, on the other hand, is strengthening its internal social ties and continuing to make it difficult for migrants to settle. I will be very interested to see whether the Japanese way can continue to survive if, as I expect, it is faced with even greater pressures as a result of social aging.

Atsushi Makino’s very helpful description of lifelong learning policy in Japan after the 2006 reforms is available at