Sunday 22 December 2013

Japanese retirees head back to work

Despite generous pensions, many want to keep busy
By Kwan Weng Kin, The Straits Times, 21 Dec 2013

MR YASUNORI Yoshida wakes up every morning, raring to go to work at his new job with a start-up that makes and sells electric scooters and tricycles in Japan and overseas.

The former engineer has more than 40 years of experience - much of it overseas - first with a major company that made and sold diesel lorries and later with other firms in the same industry.

Mr Yoshida turned 70 in May, but his age did not even come up during his job interview with Terra Motors a few months ago.

Said Terra Motors president Toru Tokushige: "If a person is of value to us, I will hire him or her, regardless of gender, age or nationality."

Working seniors like Mr Yoshida are no longer rare in Japan, where one in four people is now aged 65 years or more.

According to a survey last year by the Ministry for Internal Affairs and Communications, 57.7 per cent of Japanese in the 60-64 age group and 19.5 per cent of Japanese over 65 are still working.

Pensions are generous enough that most people who retire from big companies do not have to work. Those that do want to. But not many people take on full-time jobs like Mr Yoshida. Many seniors prefer part-time jobs with fewer responsibilities.

Mr Yoshida comes from a generation of Japanese that began working life during Japan's post-war period of high economic growth from 1954 till 1973, when many large companies built plants overseas.

Unlike many employees of big Japanese firms these days who end up highly specialised, Mr Yoshida built up expertise in a wide range of areas - from plant design and manufacturing to quality control and maintenance.

His work took him to far-flung places from Morocco to China, but his longest stints abroad were in Thailand and Indonesia.

A few years ago, he took an 18-month break to "spend more time with my family and relatives". But he got bored. "I thought it would be a waste if I were to die without passing on my knowledge to the younger generation," he said.

After rejecting three job offers, he knocked on the doors of Terra Motors, having heard about Mr Tokushige. He said he shared the 43-year-old president's philosophy of nurturing entrepreneurs.

It was a perfect match.

"What is great about Yoshida is his overseas experience and the breadth of his knowledge and experience. His thinking with regard to creating a big enterprise is also far deeper than that of a young person. I consider him a 100 per cent talent," said Mr Tokushige.

In charge of product development and manufacturing at Terra Motors, Mr Yoshida will be leading a project to build a factory in India. "I already have my visa," he said cheerfully.

At the company's Tokyo office, he is also expected to offer advice to his colleagues, whose average age is below 30.

They were initially surprised to learn that a 70-year-old man would be joining the team.

"We discovered that he knows the whole business, from upstream to downstream. He is also very friendly, so it's no problem learning from him," said Mr Kohshi Kuwahara, the 26-year-old director of overseas sales.

Mr Yoshida is also full of praise for his young colleagues. "They are easy to work with. Unlike older people, they are quick to take action."

How long does he intend to stay on the job?

At present, Terra Motors produces just 3,600 electric scooters a year.

He has jokingly told his colleagues that he "will not be able to die" until he has helped the company to meet an annual target of 100,000 units within the next two to three years.

In 1996, the Pasona Group, which provides a variety of staffing services, started temporary job placement services targeting older workers.

"Many workers retiring from big companies are looking for jobs to make full use of their experience," said Mr Ryo Nakamura of Pasona's public relations department.

"Such elderly workers are mostly placed in white-collar jobs ranging from design to sales, and they make full use of their contacts," he added.

With the latest change in Japan's employment law, more workers are now able to stay with their employer after retirement if they so desire.

From April, companies are obliged in principle to allow their employees to continue working after hitting the retirement age of 60.

At the same time, the government is slowly raising the age at which workers can start collecting their national pension. By 2025, one must be 65 to enjoy such pension payments.

Not every senior is willing to jump back in full-time.

Mr Susumu Takahasphi, 62, spent 38 years with a public corporation doing work related to municipal assemblies before retiring at 60.

After two years of job-searching and looking after his sick father, he landed his present job as a part-time building caretaker in March this year.

"After retirement, I had too much time on my hands. There were only me and my wife at home and we sometimes quarrelled. She certainly welcomes my going back to work again," he said.

Work, he said, keeps him healthy. On his days off, he goes swimming.

"I want to work as long as I can. My present employer allows staff to work till they are 69," he said pensively.

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