In a shifting economy and corporate world, agility has become a key predictor of success—yet studies show only a fraction of the global workforce is considered highly agile. In this regular column, Michael Distefano, Korn Ferry’s chief marketing officer and chief operating officer, Asia Pacific, explores the concept of agility: who has it, who doesn’t, and what companies can do to mold it.

Ask a hundred people what countries should do to grow and you’ll get as many different answers, from fiscal stimulus to tax breaks and everything in between. But of those hundred different answers, you won’t hear the actual most important one. That’s because it is so obvious that it’s easily overlooked. The most important thing any country can do to grow is to populate. It’s hard to grow your economy when you don’t have people to buy stuff.

Japan is currently playing the role of the exception that proves this rule. What’s going on in the country right now defies the numbers. Japan’s population is estimated to fall from 127 million currently to 88 million by 2060. Further, roughly 40% of those people will be older than 65. Last year marked the first time since 1899 that fewer than 1 million babies were born in Japan.

Japan’s population is estimated to fall from 127 million currently to 88 million by 2060. Click To Tweet

Yet the International Monetary Fund forecasts growth for the Japanese economy of 1.2% this year and 0.6% next year. Japanese companies are bucking demographic trends and posting stellar results. Toyota keeps selling more vehicles—and earning higher profits—than analysts expect in its home market of Japan. Shares of electronics manufacturer Panasonic are up 33 percent this year, with analysts saying that changes to its organizational structure and further expansion into new growth businesses are fueling its performance.

No company epitomizes the agility of Japanese companies in recent years quite like Softbank. In 2013, the conglomerate, led by CEO Masayoshi Son bought Sprint in an audacious move into the mobile market. Last summer it bought British chip maker ARM, and it has for years been investing heavily in Hollywood, striking partnerships with movie studio Legendary Entertainment and the William Morris Endeavor talent agency. The bets are starting to pay off. Investors have sent Softbank shares skyward since its pledge to invest $50 billion and create 50,000 new jobs in the U.S. The agility of Toyota, Panasonic, Softbank and others is not only fueling economic growth domestically, but can also serve as a model for global organizations in other mature markets that are grappling with similar demographic declines.

In addition to a two-decade low unemployment rate, wage increases, and mild inflation, the IMF cited a large and sustained increase in exports as the main reason for raising its forecast. Exports expanded at the fastest pace in more than two years in May, for instance.

The exports growth stems from Japanese companies recognising the domestic challenges and finding a way to diversify to drive growth internationally. Cosmetics maker Shiseido, for instance, last year opened an Americas Innovation Center, with more international locations to come, as part of its global plan. Hitachi management’s growth plan projects international sales to account for a majority of its overall revenue in 2018.

Japan’s demographic and economic trends play out in various ways across Asian Pacific countries. Across the region, trends show the percentage of populations aged 65+ is increasing. According to UN data, countries like Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand have been dealing with an aged population (14-21% aged 65+) for some years, while in other countries this trend has only started to bite more recently.

Most notably, it’s the speed of ageing in Asia that may present the biggest challenge, with Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong projected to see the biggest rises in over 65s, with Thailand and China not far behind. Unlike Japan, overall populations continue to grow although China’s population is expected to peak in 2030.

Ageing populations are closely tied to fertility rates and similar to Japan, these have been on the decline across APAC. The drop has been particularly stark in nations like Malaysia and China, whereas in Australia and New Zealand the drop has been less steep.

Economically, World Bank data showed continued annual growth across the region, varying from 2.8% in Australia to 6.7% in China in 2016. The convergence of ageing and economic trends predicts that ageing populations will begin eroding labour forces across Asia. The impact will be seen earliest in China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Thailand, where the decline in labour force numbers is expected to detract from GDP growth before 2020.

As many APAC countries transition to an ageing or aged society, organizations can look to Japan’s business success stories for strategies to maximise growth. While looking for opportunities outside their borders will go some of the way, businesses will also need more agile workforces, leveraging the gig economy and so-called “super-temps” to best exploit shifting demographics.

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About the contributor

Michael Distefano, based in Shanghai, is Korn Ferry's President, Asia Pacific and also a member of Korn Ferry’s Global Operating Committee. He is passionate about the importance of people in boosting organisational performance and is the driving force behind many of the firm's research projects.

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