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The pilot in the cockpit? In Japan, he might be a retiree

Miyazaki is a pilot with nearly four decades' experience at All Nippon Airways

Jonathan Soble | NYT  |  Nagasaki 

The pilot in the cockpit? In Japan, he might be a retiree
More than half of Japanese men over the age of 65 do some kind of paid work, according to government surveys, compared with a third of American men and as little as 10 percent in parts of Europe. Photo: istock

is spending what should have been his retirement 25,000 feet in the air.

Miyazaki, a pilot with nearly four decades’ experience at All Nippon Airways, Japan’s largest airline, left the carrier last year at its mandatory retirement age of 65. But rather than take up golf or fishing, Miyazaki since April has been piloting 39-seat propeller planes for Oriental Air Bridge, a tiny airline that connects the southwestern city of Nagasaki to a group of remote islands.

“I never would have thought I’d still be flying at 65,” Miyazaki, who is trim and has a deep voice and a full head of gray hair, said before a recent flight. “But I’m still healthy, and I love to fly, so why not do it as long as I can?”

A man in his seventh decade extending his commercial flying career still qualifies as a novelty in — but maybe not for long.

The aging of Japan’s work force is prompting a rethinking of traditional career paths and government safety nets. The country has the world’s longest life expectancy, little immigration and a dwindling population of young workers, the result of decades of low birthrates. Last month, the Japanese government said the number of births last year fell below one million for the first time since it began tracking the figure in 1899.

All of that makes older workers more crucial to the economy. More than half of Japanese men over the age of 65 do some kind of paid work, according to government surveys, compared with a third of American men and as little as 10 percent in parts of Europe.

Japan’s economy is beginning to hum again, thanks largely to demand for its exports, but its lack of workers could limit growth. Unemployment is a rock-bottom 2.8 percent, and companies are scrambling to find staff. At the same time, retiring baby boomers are straining the pension system, prompting the government to raise the age at which older people can collect benefits.

may offer a peek into the near future for other developed countries with aging work forces, including the United States. “If places like Germany and the United States are raising the age where people can collect pensions to 67, there’s no reason shouldn’t go to 70,” said Atsushi Seike, an expert on labour economics at Keio University in Tokyo. “We’re reaching a point where a 40-year career is just half the average life span, and having people become inactive too early is unsustainable.”

Older workers may also partly explain the puzzle of Japan’s stagnant wages, which have barely budged despite low unemployment. Older workers generally earn much less than at the peak of their careers, offsetting increases among the young and middle-aged. Oriental Air Bridge had never hired a pilot Miyazaki’s age before, but, with skilled pilots in short supply nationwide, it has been expanding its recruiting.

For Miyazaki, the choice to keep flying was a luxury. As a captain at All Nippon, where he flew Boeing 767s, primarily to Southeast Asia, he earned the equivalent of several hundred thousand dollars a year plus a generous pension. Oriental Air Bridge pays him only about a third of his peak salary, but he says he does not mind.

“The jets I used to fly were highly automated,” he said. “But now, with the propeller planes, I can enjoy a freer, more visual kind of flying. It means getting back to the basics as a pilot.”


© 2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, July 30 2017. 00:17 IST
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