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Japan’s population declined by the most on record in 2013, highlighting the demographic challenges faced by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his campaign to revive the world’s third-biggest economy.
The population fell by 244,000, according to Health Ministry estimates released yesterday, a seventh straight year of decline. Births fell about 6,000 from a year earlier to 1,031,000 and deaths increased about 19,000 to 1,275,000.
Rising welfare costs for an ageing nation threaten to worsen a debt burden that is already twice the size of the Japanese economy. At the same time, a shrinking population caps consumer demand, making it harder for Abe to drive an exit from 15 years of deflation.
The government’s decision to raise a sales tax to 8 percent from 5 percent in April is aimed at helping to secure funds for social welfare payments. That move threatens to undermine the momentum building in the economy from unprecedented monetary stimulus.
87-year-old Lew Manchester has just returned from a 3-week trip touring Buddhist temples in Laos and cruising the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. His 61-year-old daughter Lee lives year-round in the basement of her friend’s Cape Cod cottage, venturing into the winter cold to get to the bathroom. As Bloomberg reports, Lew is making the most of his old age. Lee is paring back and lightening her load as she looks ahead to her later years. Both worked all their lives, both saved what they could. “Timing is everything and my dad’s timing with jobs, real estate and retirement benefits was better,” said Lee. A rising tide of graying baby boomers is less secure financially and has a lower standard of living than their aged parents.
The median net worth for U.S. households headed by boomers aged 55 to 64 was almost 8 percent lower, at $143,964, than those 75 and older in 2011, according to Census Bureau data. Boomers lost more than other groups in the stock market and housing bust of 2008, and many also lost their jobs in the aftermath at a critical point in their productive years.
“Baby boomers are the first generation without the safety net of pensions and other benefits their parents have,” said Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. “They’re facing a much more challenging old age.”
Lee said she harbors no resentment for her dad, who she credits with instilling her with a strong work ethic. “I was never allowed to dream,” she said. “My parents and then my husband expected me to work, and I couldn’t really think about what I most wanted to do.”
Lee is hardly the only baby boomer who didn’t save enough, worked for companies without 401(k) accounts or lost significant amounts in the financial crisis. Today, her retirement savings of $120,000 are right at the median 401(k) balance for households headed by baby boomers, according to 2011 data from the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.
That will provide just $4,800 a year to boomers when they turn 65, assuming they take out 4 percent annually, the limit financial planners say should be withdrawn to assure retirees don’t run out of money in their lifetimes.
Had boomers like Lee been thriftier, they would have still been hurt by a shift to 401(k) accounts from pensions in the 1980s. Thirty-seven percent of the elderly in the U.S. collect pensions, which provide some guaranteed income until they die. Fewer than 10 percent of boomers collect pensions, and that number is quickly shrinking.
“She has never complained to me about not having enough money,” he said. “But if she needs it, I’ll advance it.”
Lee, who has repaid the money she borrowed, avoids dwelling on her difficulties during her weekly calls to her dad.
“I know he’ll help me if I fall off the ledge, but he taught me to be self-sufficient,” she said.
“It’s liberating finally getting to a point in my life where I don’t need a lot of stuff,” she said. “I felt like I was getting rid of the baggage of life that I’d kept dragging behind me and which was just weighing me down.”
Lee doesn’t regret downsizing her life. She has more time than ever to enjoy the outdoors, read and spend time with her friends.
“There’s so much pressure to keep up, to keep buying things, to stay on the treadmill always hoping to have more,” she said. “Well, less can be better.”