From Micro to Macro: Local Communities as a Key Factor for Aging Societies

By Marisabel González Ocanto

The venue of the ninth WeberWorldCafé: The City Hall in Dortmund

Talking about demographic change also means to talk about aging societies, and two prime examples for aging societies are Germany and Japan. Based on this premise, economists, politicians, social scientists and students from both countries gathered in the City Hall of Dortmund on  February 28th to discuss “Demographic Change: Challenges and Answers for Local Communities” in the 9th edition of the WeberWorldCafé.

The initiative was organized by the Max Weber Stiftung, the Forum Transregionale Studien, the German Institute of Japanese Studies and the Institute of Gerontology at the Technical University of Dortmund.

Four tables filled with food, drinks, different ideas regarding demographic change, and experts from Germany and Japan were ready to receive the participants. The first round of discussion concerned actors and their roles. Participants could choose between the tables “Local Politics”, “Families and Generations”, “Business” or “Civic Society and NGOs”.

Artificial Intelligence and a Silver Market

For the first round of discussion, I joined the Business table, where the invited experts were Hiroshi Yoshida, professor for Economics at Tohoku University in Japan, and Josef Hilbert, head of the Institute for Work and Technology (IAT) in Gelsenkirchen. The first topic of discussion was the possible role of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.): Could it create more unemployment? Will robotics do the jobs in the health care sector? The advances in this field are undoubtedly huge in both the Japanese and the German society.

While from a German perspective, A.I. might be a solution to the lack of caregivers that exists in the country, Professor Yoshida also highlighted that although A.I. can be used as a good helper, it cannot replace the human touch. At this point, another participant from Japan joined the discussion and expressed how important face-to-face contact is especially for the Japanese society and how present it is in each part of daily life. People in Germany can go to an ATM or order food without contact to other people, with all interaction being digital or managed through machines. But the opposite is common in Japan, where especially in customer service, a smile and human interaction is considered to be crucial. This is why a new Japanese concept of a Society 5.0 aims to keep increasing the use of technology, but at the same time also tries to improve relationships between citizens. However, according to Hilbert, the problem of A.I. goes beyond its creation. The real challenge is for people to accept it, and being willing to use it.

On going discussion around the “Business” table

The second point of discussion at the Business table was the recent development of a “silver market”: this includes not only aging consumers, but also laborers of a rising age. How are companies coping with the increase of an aging market? How are they dealing with the increase of aging labor force and a reduced replacement generation? The answers are still unsure, but if we pay attention to little details, such as the printing size of information on product packaging or even the ways in which bottles are opened, we notice how the aspects of daily life are not always conceptualized and designed for the elderly, as Professor Yoshida pointed out.

After 45 minutes, the first round of discussion ended. Reports from other tables highlighted the importance for local communities to bring together the goals of different administrations, the ways in which family is seen as insurance in bad times and a place for emotional support, and the importance of people being involved in civic society and NGOs their whole life, and not just when they are old.

Interrelations between Nursing and Health Care

Discussing about families and generations.

The second round of discussion about cross-sectional issues and areas of collaboration focused on the main fields in which the actors we discussed about in the first round could collaborate: “Care: Where, how and by whom?”, “Compatibility of Family and Work”, “Social Inclusion of Elderly” and “Financing Models”. I joined the first table, where Mitsuo Makino, mayor of the City of Iida in Japan, Reinhard Pohlmann, representing the City of Dortmund, and Hanno Jentzsch from the DIJ Tokyo acted as table hosts.

The topic of “Care” was first approached by discussing the strategies used by the Iida District in Japan, specifically the creation of connections between all actors in the health sector. The results show that although Iida has a higher percentage of people over 80 in comparison with the rest of Japan, with the life expectancy being higher there than in the rest of the country. Contrarily to this model, Reinhard Pohlmann explained how an interrelationship between health system and care system is still not possible in Germany. One of the reasons is the prohibition and penalization of sharing patient data. In Dortmund, an attempt to solve this problem is the creation of “Seniorenbüros”, where the elderly can find information about care and home assistance in their communities. The idea is that they can live in their own homes for as long as possible.

Local proposals such as the “Seniorenbüros” are still not implanted in all cities of Germany however, as they depend on local policies. In this sense, the unification of both, the Japanese approach and the German one, was perceived as a best case scenario. Still, there is a long way to get there.

After time was up for discussions, the short reports from the other tables showed that compatibility between family care and work is not easy, especially in Japan where young laborers often have to work extra hours. Likewise, social interaction inside and outside the family is an important factor in order to develop better inclusion of the elderly. The last result referred to the huge cost of demographic change and the measures already taken or ones that could be taken in the future to face it.

Franz Waldenberger during the concluding remarks

Franz Waldenberger during the concluding remarks

A final statement by Prof. Waldenberger closed the 9th edition of WeberWorldCafé. He highlighted the challenges of the demographic change, and how new questions arose in the discussions while some answers – unsurprisingly – still had to stay open. Demographic change is a complex topic and a huge challenge; everything happens locally and this is why local answers are the key: “Leadership is needed. Not only by politics in general, also by local communities”.

Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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