Is Japan’s age problem really all wrinkled?

GET the kids and you have got the whole family and a future market. Naomi Klein twists the dagger further in her anti-consumerism best seller ‘No Logo’ when she enlightens how marketing and branding moghuls are making it work in a particular South East Asian country teeming with billions. They make enormous sacrifices for the young, specially for young boys, which is a good news for marketers and sneaker companies….more so with the ‘little emperor syndrome’ or the ‘4-2-1 syndrome’ where four elders and two parents scrimp and save so that one child can be an MTV Clone.

Klein may make you giggle here but as hilarious as it may sound, the world is actually devoid of boundaries for the sly marketer.  We are living in a parallel universe where teens/youth get up in the morning, put on their Levi’s and Nikes, grab their caps and backpacks, latest gadgets and head for school.

So US or Europe, India or Japan, Dubai or Singapore; it really doesn’t matter, we are all consuming the same bubble wrap that branding factories are suffocating us with?

Well, almost.

May be demographic changes in some regions are spelling more trouble for marketers than they would have anticipated.

Number-watching across the globe keeps iterating growing apprehensions on ‘how will the country’s economic fabric sustain’ with Japan’s constant northbound moves on an ageing population. Japan, known for its resilience, incredible work ethos, extraordinary cultural DNA, is also becoming synonymous to a country with less youth and more senior citizens making the count skewed every year, as media reports sketch it.

Japan’s population fell by almost a quarter of a million in 2013, shown as the fifth consecutive annual fall, with low fertility rates, more singles in the population and other factors pointing to a terminal decline.

The country can claim the world’s oldest population, with a median age marks hovering around 46 years, or average lifespan as much as 84, and add or minus a few decimals, a quarter of the population over 65. Japan is not alone, there are actually some countries coming up and attracting attention of population statisticians in the way they are hitting population and average-fertility-per-woman peaks.

The point however is that we at SustainabilityZero happen to scratch our heads (a good mop albeit with some grey strands which we are proud of, by the way) at this incomprehensible red flag here. We sit back, bewildered and think aloud- why is this whole shift of age-plank being so looked down upon? When a glass is full of grease, it’s often better that it stays half empty (or may be a quarter more), right?

The panic over Japan’s so-labelled age crisis is certainly foggy, and it would take time to find the right answers, in fact, first we need to dig out the right questions.

But then this cloud, meanwhile, has a platinum lining.

Pardon the bias, but it’s hard not to see what’s staring us in this graying picture – the sustainability angle, the green colour is bright and how.

At least back here in our country, elders and people from senior generation still score way high when it comes to being positively frugal (yes, you plastic-card addict 28 year old can flash that smirk but sooner or later you will realise that saving is not a bad habit), when it’s about making the most of any product (keeping remote control/car seat cover  on for years counts too) and stretching a product’s life cycle (now you get why your father still wears that oh-so-old-fashioned corduroy blazer).

This generation does not mind haggling to the level of embarrassing their kids, they don’t mind squeezing the last blob out of a tooth-paste with a roller-pin, and they certainly have no hang-ups about re-using ice-cream spoons or Cola bottles for kitchen essentials. Elders, more often than not, tend to be more responsible consumers. Period

Let’s take this moment to chase back an interesting study some time back, from the lens of an, ahem ahem, advertiser itself.

‘You’re getting Old, Europe’s Demographic Problem’  by Young & Rubicam dissected a problem that has kept marketing consultancies and advertising curious for years. It was executed at a time when numbers of ageing people, the so-called Greys, was growing rapidly in all European countries.

The idea was to hammer a simple question: As their numbers grow, so does their spending power? Specially when convenience goods, aerosol deos and foam cleansers would have failed as product categories had it not been for the segment called ‘young consumers’! 

The ageing of Europe was underlined here as not a crisis for the government but for consumer goods companies also. Talking to people as they take their first steps in adulthood has long been the trick of effective marketing in light of well-entrenched brand loyalties, the study set the background well. It cited how Germany would see a situation by 2020, with only 1.3% of adults will be new adults coming on to the market each year.

The study was laudable in the way it candidly and viscerally listed out reasons that make marketers woo the under 35s rather than the over 35s.

For one, over 35s were ‘set in their ways’, were ‘part of a different generation’ and had ‘different values’. Over 35s don’t like weird new experiences; Over 35s have fixed tastes (the study urged us to look chronologically through the CD collection of anyone over 35, and find a point where their tastes became frozen in time); Over 35s can’t cope with new technology, they also have fixed brand repertoires.

It was interesting to note that most people may not even notice that they are becoming increasingly resistant to new ideas and new brands, because from their perspective, they are still hopping from brand to brand each time they choose foods, cleaning products and shampoos, while resistance is setting in silently.

Tellingly, over 35s were put as not-so-promiscuous and may be because they have fixed partners. This translates into a behaviour pattern because they tend to have fixed intimate habits in comparison to younger people who discover new trends and new ways of using personal products from the constant stream of partners they have.

If you are nodding already, get ready for more. Over 35s aren’t fashion victims; over 35s don’t need to show off but younger people take a lot of time to wear the right logos and style as with their desire for social display, and surely that craving need for trying new things and that motivation also goes up.

In the study, and in all fairness since that’s a marketer’s perspective, it came up as problem to solve. More so, as under 35s were tagged as the most responsive group of adults to innovative new ideas hinting that their decline meant that Europe’s consumer goods markets are becoming more and more inert.

It could be a sign of worry for marketers, but what about people fighting consumerism, communities against extravagant and irrational swagger walk of show-off materialism? What about the new minimalism cult that is emerging as a force much more formidable than just a by-product of climate change alarm?

For marketers, when older Europeans wait for their clothes to go out of style before they replace them, rather than replace them because they don’t look cool this week, that spells a problem for the clothing industry. If young, experimental, try-anything-once people are replaced by older people with a cautious approach, then main driver of economic growth is gone – as per a marketer’s assumption and glasses.

But the view from the other side is not so dismal, in fact, it’s kind of contrary.

Isn’t it nice to at least have one country full of people/a demographic tendency that is more cautious, vigilant, responsible and not-so-headlong (at least in relative terms) as their younger counterparts? Does this not make Japan a country less prone to imprudent, thoughtless, crowd-blinkered consumerism?

Even if it comes down to a solution called ‘more immigration’ that many economists and political experts are suggesting at this point to Japan, it is nice to swing back to the Y&R study which pinpointed that immigrants tend to bring loyalties to brands in their home markets with them. When they move countries; they bring home markets with them.

Time for a little rewind loop to get a peek into Japan’s way with consumerism.

In ‘Consumption, Consumerism, and Japanese Modernity by Andrew Gordon, Harvard University highlighted that Japanese story is not one of simple absorption or mimicry; local patterns and understandings of consumer life were not stamped uniformly from a single mold.

Postwar scenario check shows notable patterns. Sociologist Yoshimi Shunya has labeled the “post-postwar” era where he identified the decade from the early 1970s into the 1980s as the transition point.

Interestingly, the surge in new forms of cultural production and consumption has been shown to have coincided not only with two decades of relative economic stagnation in Japan, but also with a leveling off in the purchase of “traditional” modern goods.

Take this – both domestic consumption and perhaps most significantly the expressed desire for owning automobiles among young Japanese consumers declined substantially in the first decade of the 21st century.

Studying materialism in Japan from another angle, WolfgangJagodzinski, University of Cologne also started by focusing on whether age really plays an obscure role in postmaterialism theory. He attempted to analyse Inglehart’s argument that decline of materialism in postwar Japan was the result of generational change.

May be it’s not the full picture that we are talking of at this moment. May be Japan is actually confronting a puzzle of its kind. But at least in some sense, at least at a hypothesis level, it’s not all panic when you think of how more elderly people can also mean a society more environment-friendly in its own ways.

That could be fodder for initiating a correlation test between an environment metric and age patterns in the country. In case anyone is already on it, or done it, do let us know here.

We would love to be corrected. Since most of us are, what do you say – over 35 here:) and happily so!


  1. Keshav April 4, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Age brings wisdom to choose and grace to let go. Both make you a light traveller in the flow of time. Backpackers are a nightmare to any businessman, but that’s the best way to explore any place. So while aging is bad news for seller of clutter (consumer goods), its a welcome relief for the nature and the idea of sustainability


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