Twilight Years

Two good reads in The New York Times kept me pre-occupied about the life of retirees around us — increasingly invisible in an India that boasts of its demographic dividend and a consumption economy thriving on better earning, more confident young spenders. First was a blog about job fairs meant for Bangalore’s skilled 60 plus population. It attracted crowds of aged — not just retirees but even house wives well into their twilight years, says author — exposing the vulnerabilities of our vaunted family system. This, in a city of young technology workers with better paid jobs and relatively high lifestyles.

Second, a report about Japan’s elderly who came off the baby boom years. Japanese Yen has been unprecedentedly strong (against US$) in recent quarters, eroding its famous export industries like automobiles and consumer electronics. But a stronger Yen fetched a better life for retirees living on cheaper imported goods and services. The currency was dividing generations in Japan, says the report, adding that political establishment was wary of upsetting the grey population who vote in large numbers. But it threatens the economic base of the younger Japanese.

An emerging economy drums up its younger people in search of faster progress, and one developed nation wants to reboot growth but worried about antagonizing its older population. Perfect settings in a roiled world. In public life, the politically correct carries the day. My thoughts are with India’s aged (and that’s a huge number given our size) with little or no retirement benefits. Those who pushed a lifetime, struggling relentlessly to make their children better off. They lived a typical, and sometimes wretched, Indian middle class dream.

Read here the two NYT features, starting with the job fairs for old in Bangalore

Bangalore’s Seniors Head to Work as Traditional Indian Family Dissolves

By Saritha Rai

Sheela Rao, 67, has never written a résumé, attended a job interview or used a computer in her life. She has not ever worked in an office. Yet on a recent Saturday, Ms. Rao, a sari-clad, bindi-wearing homemaker, jostled with 1,000 other elders like her, some in their 80s, at a job fair named “Jobs 60+” in Bangalore.

She can cook, sew and teach music, Ms. Rao told anybody who would give her a listen. She is healthy and can work hard, she said. “I desperately need a job and a steady income,” she pleaded with prospective employers.

A job fair for seniors is a paradox in a “young” city where multinational employers from Silicon Valley’s hottest social media firms and top Wall Street banks throng colleges to sign up those in their 20s even before they graduate.

The weekend gathering offered a glimpse into the social upheaval in Bangalore and other large cities where older Indians are buffeted by rising living and health care costs on the one side and fading support from their ambitious, globally mobile children.

Adding to the complexity, many Indians retire at the mandated age of 58 or 60, and social security covers only a sliver of the population.

This generation on the cusp of great change has not programmed their retirement finances properly, said Dr. Radha Murthy, an elder care pioneer and medical practitioner, whose nonprofit Nightingales Medical Trust organized the job fair. It is the first age band wedged between the traditional and the rapidly westernizing.

Ms. Rao has five children, all married, and lives in the home of her oldest daughter, a bank employee. There, Ms. Rao has gradually become confined to two rooms at the back of the house, she said. She cooks for herself and has very little independence. For instance, to listen to music she must wear headphones so as to not disturb the family.

Ms. Rao knows many others in the same boat. Across the street is an older neighbor who pines for the affections of her son who works in the United States.

“Young people these days are arrogant because they earn big money. They are only interested in themselves,” rued Ms. Rao.

The 3,000-rupee ($54) monthly pension she receives after her banker husband’s death is barely enough to survive on, so she makes pickles and snacks to sell in the neighborhood. The income from such exertions too is patchy, so Ms. Rao went to the job fair to look for a steady job and a regular income.

There were dozens of companies looking for accountants, administrators, teachers and insurance salesmen. But, alas, nobody had a job for an elderly homemaker.

The large Indian family has all but disappeared, and the pressures of urban living are being felt in nuclear families, says Ashok Dey, chief executive of an upscale retirement community called Suvidha in the suburbs of Bangalore.

The elderly who expected to be cared for in their old age, as in the generations preceding them, are finding that their busy children are chasing their own careers and ambitions and have no time, inclination or money for them, said Mr. Dey, who said he and his affluent neighbors in the Suvidha community were not in that situation.

Dr. Murthy said, “It is an India where kids no longer want to spend the summer with the grandparents; they would rather spend it at Disneyland.”

At the senior job fair, a dozen young employees from a large multinational bank were volunteers, and they highlighted the age and wage contrast. One of them, Krutika Kuppuraj, 23, an analyst, was overwhelmed by the tales of despair around her. The Indian value system emphasized respect for elders, but that is eroding fast, said Ms. Kuppuraj.

A few of the volunteers were all too aware that the meager monthly pension that some seniors received is the equivalent of what they routinely spend at a cafe on a casual outing.

The massive turnout at Jobs 60+ may have revealed only the tip of the problem because India’s middle class is adept at keeping up social appearances. “Many middle-class Indians will not tell on their kids or let the ‘all-is-well’ facade slip,” said Dr. Murthy.

Until he retired recently, V. Mohan, 64, worked for three decades for a single employer, a university. That day at the fair, Mr. Mohan was not looking for a white-collar job. He was willing to settle for any type of work, he said.

His 6,000-rupee rent ($108) is eating into his 10,000-rupee ($180) pension, and that has made him desperate.

Of Mr. Mohan’s two children, one daughter has recently married and lives with her husband. He is supporting the other as she finishes up her Ph.D. Mr. Mohan insists that he does not want her money when she starts working.

Another recent retiree, Chandrajayanthi Mala, 60, a former medical counselor, was at the job fair because she was already gazing into the future. Her husband is on the verge of retiring. She knows many older people have been dumped by their kids who are in “sophisticated jobs.”

“The future is scary as there is no dignity for elders in the family, no importance to their ideas,” she said.

Her son will soon be married, and she prays that he and his future wife will take care of them. Not willing to totally rely on prayers, however, she decided to join the lines at the fair.

Unfortunately, a cruel outcome awaited many elderly job seekers who did not have any computer or other marketable skills.

In Bangalore, a job market long associated with young, fickle, itinerant workers, the fair’s organizers thought they had a unique proposition: the loyalty, experience and cost effectiveness of older employees.

Yet neither Ms. Rao nor Mr. Mohan made the cut.

Strong Yen is Dividing Generations in Japan

By Martin Fackler

SHIZUOKA, Japan — As Japan has ceded dominance in industry after industry that once lifted this nation to economic greatness, there has been plenty of blame to go around. A nuclear disaster that raised energy costs. A lack of entrepreneurship. China’s relatively cheap work force.
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Increasingly, however, business leaders point to a problem that is at least partly within the government’s power to control: a high yen that has made Japanese products, from televisions to memory chips, prohibitively expensive abroad. In an echo of a debate that raged in the United States in the 1980s, the government faces growing criticism for doing almost nothing to rein in the yen, despite alarm that the record-high currency is dealing crippling blows to the country’s once all-important export machine.

One big reason, analysts and some politicians say, is simple, if generally left unsaid: A high yen benefits Japan’s rapidly expanding elderly population, even if it hurts other parts of the country.

By speeding the flood of cheaper imported products into Japan, the strong yen is contributing to deflation, a broader drop in the prices of goods and services that has helped retirees stretch their pensions and savings. The resulting inaction on the yen, according to a growing number of economists and politicians, reflects a new political reality, with already indecisive leaders loath to upset retirees from the baby boom who make up more than a quarter of the population and tend to vote in high numbers.

“Japan’s tolerance of the strong yen and deflation is rooted in a clash of generations,” said Yutaka Harada, a professor of political science and economics at Waseda University in Tokyo. “And for now, the seniors are winning.”

That victory comes at a high price, however, hastening the hollowing out of Japan’s industrial base as companies continue to move abroad, exacerbating the nation’s two-decade-long economic stagnation.

On Monday, the government released the final draft of a new economic strategy that it contends will help break what it described as a vicious cycle of a strong yen and deflation. But even though the long-awaited plan identifies the heart of the problem as Japan’s aging population and declining export prowess, analysts said the government’s modest approach fails to take on the entrenched interests, including the elderly, that have long stood in the way of fundamental change.

Japan can trace the start of the yen’s latest rise to the worldwide economic panic that began in the United States and spread to Europe. Just before the first tremors of the American housing crisis appeared in 2007, the exchange rate stood at 123 yen to the dollar, as the Bank of Japan kept interest rates low to stimulate growth, and money flowed out of Japan in search of higher returns.

After the crisis began, raising doubts about the soundness of American and European banks and the ability of governments to stand behind them, the tide of money reversed. Japan, with its huge security cushion of domestic savers, became a haven for investors, driving the yen up.

The yen hit a postwar high of about 76 to the dollar in February and today remains not far from that level, trading Wednesday around 78 to the dollar. It would not be easy to reverse the value of Japan’s currency; worldwide macroeconomic trends currently favor a strong yen. Nor are most experts suggesting that consideration of the elderly is the only cause of political paralysis over how to revitalize the economy.

But breaking that stalemate is becoming harder as the elderly’s political clout grows. Even some retirees reveling in the benefits of the government’s inaction see the long-term quandary.

Shigeru Ono, a retired oil company manager who won a small following blogging on deflation’s virtues, can tick off the strong yen’s advantages, including lower prices for shirts made in Vietnam and the Chinese flat-screen television he bought recently. He is also clear on the perils.

“The strong yen and deflation have been a boon for us baby boomers,” said Mr. Ono, 62, who is living on limited savings and a fixed monthly pension of 130,000 yen, or about $1,660. “But I also know that they cannot be good for my son’s generation.”

The office of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda has defended the government’s handling of the currency, not only by presenting its new plan, but also by pointing out that companies have been offered $6 billion in subsidies to help them move into higher-end products less affected by competition from other Asian exporters.

The Finance Ministry, meanwhile, has taken small steps to drive down the yen by buying a total of $200 billion worth of United States currency during the last two years. But officials said its efforts were never intended to do more than blunt surges driven by speculators.

A more effective step, economists said, would be for the Bank of Japan to essentially turn on the printing presses, encouraging the currency’s value to drop. The Federal Reserve has done just that in response to the financial crisis and the economic weakness in the United States, keeping down the dollar’s value and helping to foster a strong rise in American exports.

Critics say the central bank’s entrenched bureaucrats have resisted doing something similar in recent years out of an outdated fear of rekindling the rampant inflation in the value of real estate and other assets of the 1980s bubble economy. But the bank argues that it makes little sense to intervene without longer-range economic fixes, like deregulating protected domestic industries to spur competition.

As such debates rage on, the supercharged yen bolsters the ability of Japanese to buy foreign goods and to travel abroad, but continues to eat away at the foundations of the economy, hurting companies from mighty Toyota to small ones like Kyouwa, a manufacturer of factory automation equipment in rural Seki, west of the rust-belt city of Shizuoka.

Kyouwa’s second-generation owner, Ryuji Usuda, said he finally decided, after he lost an important Japanese customer last year to a Korean rival, that he had no choice but to move his production line to a new factory in Vietnam. He said the plant would allow him to make machines for 30 percent to 40 percent less than in Japan.

“Pretty soon, nothing will be made in Japan anymore,” said Mr. Usuda, 40, who noted that many of the Japanese factories he supplied were also moving to Southeast Asia.

Last year, the influx of products from abroad contributed to Japan’s first annual trade deficit in 31 years.

Some members of Parliament, including some from the governing party, have become worried enough to begin organizing a sort of political insurgency, proposing ways to fight the strong yen. But they have made little headway in changing the underlying political calculus.

“The strong yen robs from youth, but there is not much awareness here yet of generational inequalities,” said Keiichiro Asao of the opposition Your Party.

One way to spur such awareness, critics say, would be to allow national pension payments to drop with falling consumer prices, as the law demands. But the government ignored the law for years rather than upset elderly voters.

Last year, it finally took a baby step, slightly trimming pension payments. The loss of just a couple of dollars a month, though, was enough to start Mr. Ono, the blogger, rethinking. “Now I am starting to realize that deflation can be bad, too,” he said.

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