TOKYO -- They are first in line to be fired, paying off mortgages and putting kids through school, are watching lifelong values fall apart and are anxious about getting old -- middle-aged Japanese are facing tough times.

Life may not be easy, but changes in their attitudes toward aging, work and saving are critical for Japan to have a better future, the government said in its annual report on national life released on Friday.Entitled "Middle-aged Japanese -- Fears and Hopes," the report hones in on Japanese in their 40s and 50s, particularly baby-boomers, and finds the root of their current anxieties in demographics.

Not only are they many, the young are comparatively few, as the number of children born per woman fell dramatically in the 1950s and is still on a declining trend, falling to 1.39 in 1997 compared with 4.32 in 1949.

Japan has the world's most rapidly aging population, with huge implications for the national debt and the social security system, which depends on younger generations to finance the pensions of older generations.

The middle-aged also have to cope as values such as lifelong employment and dedication to their company, once assumed to ensure a comfortable life, are fast disappearing as the economy remains ridden in recession.

The report recommends pension and health care insurance reform as well as indirectly urging middle-aged Japanese to prepare for a future in which they may lose their current jobs but where there may be openings due to a shortage of younger workers.

It calls for a more flexible working environment to allow the elderly to supplement their pensions and says middle-aged Japanese should acquire new skills to lessen the risks of unemployment.

Also a key theme was the need for change in their attitude towards saving money.

Currently saving around 30 percent of their disposable income, the Japanese have one of the highest savings rates in the world.

The report aimed to look on the bright side of life, saying that when they become the elderly of the future, Japan's middle-aged will be richer in assets than the previous generation, have the potential to form a huge consumer market and should feel more relaxed about spending.

"We are not saying don't worry at all, just don't worry as much," said Taichi Sakaiya, head of the government's Economic Planning Agency, which compiled the report.