Japan: Is life getting better?

I’m choosing Japan for this post, but it could refer to almost any developed country.

I would argue that the answer to the question in the title depends on how you define “life”:

Definition A:  The total utility of the typical life.

Definition B:  The average flow of human utility in a typical year.

Economists usually think in terms of definition A, even though one could argue that strict application of our widely used utilitarian framework implies definition B is more appropriate.  (Or even another definition, total flow of utility.)

Below is a typical picture of Japanese Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 1.15.54 PMlife in the 1950s, along with a more recent picture, which shows what a typical day in Japan might look like during the 2050s.  In which of these two pictures are “living standards” higher?

Now you may complain that I’m comparing apples and oranges, that of course life is more fun when you are young than when you are elderly.  And that’s true, but I’d also argue that these two pictures fit my definition B of “life”.  In each case, I’m showing the typical experience of Japanese life during a given day, or even a given year.

Consider the population distributions, by age for Japan in 1960, 2020 and 2050:

Screen Shot 2018-08-28 at 1.30.47 PMYou can see that during the 1950s, life in Japan was mostly young life.  During the 2050s, life in Japan will be mostly old life.  In my previous post I argued that I’d gladly accept a much lower income to have the health and energy I had at age 31, rather than my current 62.

Just to be clear, I’m not a nihilist arguing that Japan’s amazing economic progress since the 1950s has been of no value.  Living standards in material terms really are vastly higher.  Not only are the Japanese much richer, they also live much longer.  Nor am I arguing for a natalist policy to boost birthrates—I see no obvious market failure that calls for government interference.  On the other hand, I’m not denying that a natalist policy might be beneficial, just that I haven’t yet seen any convincing arguments for interfering with people’s personal decisions on having children.  So I don’t have any sort of agenda here, other than to make people think about what it means for life to be “better” than in the past.

Of course all this hinges on my preference for definition B of “life”.  Most people probably think in terms of definition A, and hence would not be at all bothered by these trends, as long as the average complete life is better than before.  My “flow approach” partly fits in with my denial of personal identity.  I think of life as a series of experiences, and I think of “me” as being a completely different person from the “me” at age 8.  Japan in the 1950s had a big flow of “young life”.

I’m so agnostic about all of this that I’m not even sure younger people really are happier. Happiness research doesn’t necessarily support this claim, even though we almost all instinctively feel that we’d like to be younger.  Think about the vast industry for beauty products to make people look younger.  Or “health clubs”.  But maybe our worship of youth is all just looking through rose-tinted glasses.

BTW, the Japanese population pyramid from 1960 is roughly how things looked throughout most of human history, almost everywhere in the world.  It’s the new distribution that is uncharted territory.  If youth really does equate with happiness, how do we compare life in Mali and Niger, with life in Japan?  Also, because poor countries typically have higher birth rates, and because birth rates fall as countries get richer, Japan’s birthrate cannot be increased by economic growth, no matter how many stories you read about modern East Asian families being unable to “afford” more than one child.  Singapore is twice as rich as Japan, and has an even lower birth rate.  Crazy rich Asians!

PS.  The little girl on the left didn’t have an iPhone.  I’m old enough to remember just how sad life was back then.  Young people today can’t even imagine.



20 Responses to “Japan: Is life getting better?”

  1. Gravatar of bill bill
    30. August 2018 at 13:36

    Mostly off topic, but look at this age pyramid for Japan. Notice the notch for 1966. The explanation that I found elsewhere was that it was a bad zodiac year – the result being 400,000 fewer births than expected. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_Japan#/media/File:Japan_sex_by_age_2015.png

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. August 2018 at 14:05

    Very interesting. It was right around 1966 that the growth rate of global population hit the highest point it will ever reach—around 2%.

  3. Gravatar of gmm gmm
    30. August 2018 at 19:03

    Scott, never say never. Uncharted territory, as you wrote. Who is to say birth rates won’t rise?

  4. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    30. August 2018 at 20:08

    gmm, I agree.

  5. Gravatar of SG SG
    31. August 2018 at 06:01


    No market failures in the “market” for having kids?

    1. Hyperbolic discounting means that individuals under-value the utility of having older kids and (especially) grandchildren. Bryan Caplan’s book “Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids” is a persuasive argument for this point.

    2. Pay-as-you-go old-age assistance like social security means that childless adults are free riding off of the taxes paid by their peers’ children.

    Am I misunderstanding this?

  6. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. August 2018 at 07:15

    SG, I’m not convinced by your first point (indeed I think you could argue the opposite—(people overvalue having kids.) Do polls show that childless couples are less happy.

    The second point may be valid, but why is having more kids superior to subsidized 401K accounts?

    There are also negative externalities to the environment, etc.

  7. Gravatar of H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover) H_WASSHOI (Maekawa Miku-nyan lover)
    31. August 2018 at 07:53

    People living by the Japanese government welfare assistant program usually have iPhone, I see

  8. Gravatar of RobertB RobertB
    31. August 2018 at 14:02

    Do you have a principled objection to a Logan’s Run scenario? Assume the government kills everyone on their 30th birthday, thereby freeing up resources to support a much larger population of young people. If we accept the denial of personal identity, it seems that no existing person in this scenario really has standing to object to the state of affairs. Each person gets to live out their one experience before vanishing like a soap bubble. Perhaps one of these ephemeral people would say that they would prefer more future experiences be lived by someone who succeeds them in their physical body, but how much weight should we really give someone’s selfish preferences about the future composition of the population? Meanwhile, we’ve weeded out all the low-utility old-person experiences and freed up resources for more high-utility young-person experiences. What’s not to love?

  9. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    31. August 2018 at 15:55

    Robert, I once argued (here) that reckless men provided external benefits to society, by living a life of high trills and high risk. When they died they can be easily replaced. But of course that ignores how humans are connected, and how the living suffer when their loved ones die.

  10. Gravatar of Japan: Is life getting better? – The Economics and Finance Remix Japan: Is life getting better? – The Economics and Finance Remix
    2. September 2018 at 07:19

    […] Source: Japan: Is life getting better? […]

  11. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    2. September 2018 at 19:56

    Boy is that the wrong picture for 2050!

    By 2050, there will have been major breakthroughs in age reversal so the demographic pyramid will not matter. Strong A.I. may not happen by 2050, but we can be almost positive that computers and robots will be far more powerful in 30 years than today. For some reason, Noah Smith also completely ignored these likely advances as well in an article last week.

  12. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    2. September 2018 at 23:39


    One more: Can you explain why you think after 200 years of the Industrial Revolution and a 20th century revolution in computation that you expect almost no medical changes from 2020 to 2050?

  13. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. September 2018 at 08:17

    This whole blog post is extremely creepy. Maybe I don’t get it either. Maybe both. Most likely both.


    that you expect almost no medical changes from 2020 to 2050?

    Define medical changes. Breakthroughs like making cancer a chronical disease? Most likely yes. Immense breakthroughs like stopping or reversing ageing? Most likely no.

  14. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    3. September 2018 at 09:20

    1. eliminating cancer
    2. reducing the incidence of cancer by 50%
    3. eliminating Alzheimer’s disease – some experts think likely by 2025.
    4. eliminating heart disease – stem cell patches likely by 2020 to 2025
    5. synthetic organs by 2025 and fairly inexpensive in the 2030s.
    6. improved drugs for depression, anxiety, etc.
    7. health pills for better stamina – this has already started with NR.
    8. slow down and some reversal in aging

    Calico’s vice president of aging research, biologist Cynthia Kenyon, has said that those who can’t see the day when a 90 year old will look and feel 40 need to change their way of thinking about old age.

  15. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    3. September 2018 at 10:37

    Todd, You easy:

    “Can you explain why you think after 200 years of the Industrial Revolution and a 20th century revolution in computation that you expect almost no medical changes from 2020 to 2050?”

    I expect lots of medical advances.

  16. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    3. September 2018 at 12:34

    Oh, OK. But then you will need a new picture for the 2050 standard of living scenario. I highly doubt in 30 years there will be 85 year olds who look and feel like the elderly today.

  17. Gravatar of Njnnja Njnnja
    3. September 2018 at 12:50

    Re: most people think version A.

    It’s probably a rather complex function, with aspects of A and B. There is little argument that The Children of Men is a dystopia, despite the massive shift in consumption from child rearing costs to leisure pursuits.

  18. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    3. September 2018 at 13:02


    1. won’t happen because cancer is related to ageing, the more you age, the more cancer
    2. doubt it, see above
    3. doubt it
    4. doubt it. your heart has to pump since birth. sooner or later it will break down. maybe you could (ex)change the whole heart. but that’s not eliminating heart disease then. it’ just changing the pump before complete collapse but even then you still haven’t changed all the vessels in your body.
    5. doubt it
    6. happens already, every few years
    7. there are more than enough drugs for this already, side effects will never go away
    8. sloppy definition, you will always age, as long as time goes by.

  19. Gravatar of Todd Kreider Todd Kreider
    3. September 2018 at 15:55

    1. Actually, the risk of getting cancer flattens at around 80.
    2. We’ve already seen a 10% reduction by those who take metformin.
    3. Read what the experts are saying about Alzeimer’s disease.
    4. Read about stem cell patches and that area in general. At some point, a person would receive a synthetic heart.
    5. Again, progress on synthetic 3D printed organs is easy to find in the news.
    6. Not “every few years” and there are significant side effects.
    7. NR, a derivative of vitamin B3 increases stamina and balance in those over 60 by 8% if 500 mg (about $2 a day) with no side effects.
    8. You know what I mean.

  20. Gravatar of xu xu
    22. November 2020 at 09:04

    The good life has nothing to do with consumption.

    This is the problem with monumental losers, and epic morons, such as yourself.

    Indeed, your entire country’s philosophy is built on the premise of Lockean concepts, rooted in the inalienable, the universal, yet you spout Bentham’s nonsense as a driving force for happiness.

    Do you know the Country that currently uses prevailing notions of utility as its barometer for every transaction. Yep, you guessed it. Your beloved wannabe homeland of CHINA! The CCP, your old friend and lover, and bribing partner, is currently deploying “utility” to determine people’s lives. As long as its in the best interest of their party, or the country, your individuality is destroyed at every turn.

    Welcome to the wonderful world of Utility.
    And since we are here in this moron world of utility, let’s apply it.

    Third rate academics working at small schools that nobody has ever heard of should probably not be allowed to write nonsense, because their idiocy will decrease the “utility” of our great nation.

    See how your utility works against you? Thank you.

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