Stanford Asia-Pacific Innovation Conference Examines New Pathways for Aging Societies

The world is “graying” at an unprecedented rate. According to the UN’s World Population Prospects 2019, the number of persons over the age of 65 is growing the fastest and expected to more than double by 2050, then triple in another 50 years’ time.

Some Asian countries in particular, plagued by population aging, declining fertility, and gender imbalance, are facing a grim outlook for a demographic crisis. In Japan, one in five people is now 70 or older, birthrate has dropped to a historic level, and the population declined by more than a quarter of a million last year. Meanwhile, South Korea is aging more quickly than any other developed country: with seniors on the verge of making up 14% of the population, the country is on the cusp of becoming an “aged society.” The potential impact of population aging on the labor market and the fiscal pressures on the public systems of healthcare, pensions, and social protection schemes for older adults are some of the many problems that these and other countries must tackle.

Against this background, Shorenstein APARC recently held the third annual gathering of the Stanford Asia-Pacific Innovation project, a Center-led initiative that produces academic and policy-relevant research to promote innovation and entrepreneurship in East Asia. Held in Chuncheon, South Korea and organized jointly with Hallym University’s Institute for Communication Arts and Technology, this year’s conference focused on the intersection of aging, technological development, and innovation in the region.

Gi-Wook Shin stans at a podium

(Gi-Wook Shin)

APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin opened the two-day session, introducing the conference’s themes. “What policies can promote innovation and entrepreneurship in aging populations?” Shin asked. “What opportunities do new technologies offer for addressing challenges posed by East Asia’s demographic shifts, and what are the threats involved in the adoption of these new technologies?”

Joon-Shik Park, vice president of the Office of Vision and Cooperation at Hallym University,  the conference host, noted that “East Asian countries are the most important testbeds on issues related to aging and innovation,” and that sharing meaningful research and implications from the region “will provide invaluable insights for all the societies around us.”

 Yong Suk Lee , Junichi Yamanoi , Young-Bum Kim, and Jiyoung Liu seated at a table

(From left to right, Yong Suk Lee , Junichi Yamanoi , Young-Bum Kim, and Jiyoung Liu)

Family Business Succession

Demographic forces and population aging at the macro level are altering family structures and assumptions at the micro level. For example, Junichi Yamanoi of Waseda University presented a study that examined how expectations around managerial succession at family firms had a significant impact on a firm’s long-term investments.

The study surveyed over 15,000 small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the Tokyo metropolitan area. The participants were initially asked about their firm’s attributes, CEO demographics, and succession expectations. More than a year later (a time lag that eliminated reverse causality), a sampling of respondents was then asked about their current long-term investments (e.g., R&D, new product development, and internationalization activities).

Yamanoi and his coauthors found that, when a family business’ CEO was confident that a successor would follow, their firm was more likely to engage in long-term investment. Additionally, a CEO’s expectations that the successor would be someone other than their child resulted in an even greater likelihood of long-term investment.

As part of its policy propositions, the study recommends that government agencies and SME officers eager to increase investments by SMEs introduce external candidates to such firms. Moreover, family CEOs should be cautioned against investment decisions that are too short-term in orientation, as, due to inherent aversion to losses of socioemotional wealth for the family, they may unconsciously avoid long-term investments.

Javier Miranda presents at table

(Javier Miranda)

Rethinking Age and Entrepreneurship

At a luncheon keynote address, Javier Miranda, principal economist at the U.S. Census Bureau,  shared insights into the correlations between age and high-growth entrepreneurship, considering when in life people start firms and when they start the most successful firms.

Miranda acknowledged that youth is often perceived as being crucial to entrepreneurial success, referring to Mark Zuckerberg’s dictum, “Young people are just smarter.” Venture capitalist (VC) activity seems to support this notion, said Miranda, citing a sample of 35 VC-backed “unicorns” that resulted in a mean founder age of 31. He explained that VCs' high regard of young entrepreneurs may be attributed to a belief in young people's greater deductive reasoning, transformative thinking, and higher energy, optimism, and confidence.

But does the statistical evidence support such a view? It would seem not. Miranda’s data showed that the mean age for founders of any type of firm is 41.9. Furthermore, the mean age for founders of the most successful firms (those ready for Initial Public Offering market) was 45, and a founder at age 50 was approximately twice as likely to experience successful exit or high growth compared to a founder 20 years their junior.

In fact, dependent on the starting of a firm, the probability of a founder’s success peaked in the age range of 45-59. Pointing directly to entrepreneurs like Jobs and Bezos, Miranda conceded that even extremely talented people, who may be talented enough to succeed when young, peaked in middle age.

The results of Miranda’s study seem at odds with VC attraction to younger entrepreneurs. Experience, Miranda concluded, appeared to overwhelm any potential age advantage, but more research was needed to unpack the underlying predictors of entrepreneurial success over one’s life cycle.

Role of Technology in an Aging Populace

Day two of the conference focused on the promising role technology may play as populations age. APARC Research Scholar Kenji Kushida detailed both the current and impending problems Japan faces as its population both ages and shrinks in size, and the solutions possible through technological advancement like robotics, AI, and wearable devices.

For example, Japan’s demographic shift has had a double knock-on effect on agriculture, with the percentage of farm workers age 65 or older steadily rising over the last five years and the total cultivated agricultural land decreasing each passing year. Kushida described how ICT-enabled bulldozers allow farm owners to more precisely flatten the ground in rice paddies, resulting in both greater yields and cost savings as much as 40%.

Healthcare is another significant area of concern in Japan, as healthcare costs for people over 65 are four times that of younger people and medical costs as a proportion of GDP have been increasing sharply, especially in rural areas. Shortage of physicians and diagnostic technicians is another challenge. Kushida gave an example of a technology healthcare resource that enables clinics and hospitals to upload patient medical images which are then diagnosed by medical doctors affiliated with the tool's startup developer. This low-cost solution allows smaller, rural hospitals to tap into a larger network of physicians and specialists online.

While Japan’s technological trajectory has been driven primarily by the private sector, Kushida pointed out the important role played by government actors. Specifically, within the “Abenomics” reforms of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, several key performance indicators include support for digitizing medical records, adoption of robotics in nursing care, and extending “healthy” life expectancy.

Edited volumes collecting the papers from the annual Stanford Asia-Pacific Innovation conferences are forthcoming. These will serve as valuable references for scholars and policymakers. The first conference was held at Stanford in 2017, and examined the industrial organization of businesses and innovation clusters and how such environments affect entrepreneurship. The second conference, held in September of 2018 in Beijing, analyzed the impact of public education and financial policies pursued by East Asian countries to promote entrepreneurship.

Presenters gathered on stage