Future of Work

Japan is replacing its ageing construction workers with robots

A humanoid robot works side by side with employees in the assembly line at a factory of Glory Ltd., a manufacturer of automatic change dispensers, in Kazo, north of Tokyo, Japan, July 1, 2015. Japanese firms are ramping up spending on robotics and automation, responding at last to premier Shinzo Abe's efforts to stimulate the economy and end two decades of stagnation and deflation. Picture taken July 1, 2015. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Japan's industries need robot workers to fill the extra capacity left by the country's ageing population. Image: REUTERS/Issei Kato

Dan Robitzski
Journalist, Futurism
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Future of Work?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Future of Work is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Future of Work

Japanese companies are facing a workforce automation problem. It’s not the kind you normally hear about, though — workers aren’t afraid they’ll lose their jobs to machines. Instead, the companies need to engineer robots to replace the droves of Japanese workers approaching retirement age.

Right now, over a quarter of the Japanese population is over the age of 65, and that number is expected to jump to 40 percent over the next 40 years. That’s bad news for industries that will need to replace those retiring workers, especially for industries like construction for which automation hasn’t caught on as quickly.

Over a quarter of the Japanese population is over 65. Image: The Globe and Mail

Some companies are working to develop new robots to aid in high-rise construction. Many have been developed, but few deployed. One, Shimizu, is about to test its newly-developed robotic welder, carrier, and all-purpose lifting tool.

It’s not been easy to get this far, and the robots are still nowhere near perfect, according to an article in Bloomberg Technology. The problem is that working on a building requires people or robots to actually, you know, move around within the building. In spite of improvements in autonomous machinery, engineers haven’t quite figured out how to make a robot that can do meaningful construction work while being able to move as they need to on a construction site.

But Japan’s construction industry needs these bots, like, now. When an industry is automated, workers are often displaced. But now, those employees are leaving either way, and the tech needed to fill in the gaps might not be ready.

Experts suspect robots can take over some of the welding, shipping, and basic tasks involved in constructing a new high rise. But even then, robot labor will only make up about 1 percent of each project, based on current technology.

Construction bots, which include assembly robots (the kind that work in factories) as well as autonomous, self-navigating vehicles like forklifts, will mainly work night and weekend shifts. Because the technology is so new, current workers would feel more comfortable not working in the same space, for safety purposes. This is required of autonomous vehicles on construction sites but will also be the case for assembly bots used in construction.

The robot revolution is still off in the distance, but for the sake of Japan’s future constructions, maybe we should hope it comes around a bit sooner.

Have you read?
Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Green job vacancies are on the rise – but workers with green skills are in short supply

Andrea Willige

February 29, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum