Usually when we think of depopulation, we think of whales or pandas, but not human beings. What’s happening now in Japan has the potential to affect humanity on a global scale.
Perpetual Singles in Japan
Columnist Abigail Haworth writes from Japan where she is finding out that young people are doing the unthinkable: they’re avoiding having sex, let alone relationships, marriages or families. Young adults in Japan are very clear on their reasons for avoiding romantic entanglements. Even before the 2011 tsunami that scoured cities from the Japanese coastline and sent the Fukushima nuclear plant into a barely-controlled meltdown, Japan had been struggling economically for decades.
Macroeconomic woes translated directly into new and greater pressures on young workers. Whereas Japan was formerly known for companies that guaranteed lifetime employment and workers that responded to this pledge with fanatical dedication and loyalty, now workers are less motivated to climb the corporate ladder. Reduced salaries signaled the end of the one-income family.
While in the U.S., families made the transition from single-income to dual-income with some concessions made to working mothers, Japanese women found that their employers would not accept that mothers needed to divide their attention between work and home. So would-be Japanese families are stuck in a double-bind: not enough income to have one parent at home and yet no way for both parents to hold down jobs and care for children.
The Unaffordable Generation
The economic obstacles to family aren’t limited to Japan. In just a few generations, children have gone from being an economic necessity to a growing economic burden. Before industrialization, farm families depended on children and teens to work the land and lighten the load on their elders.
With the advent of industrialization, child labor laws and compulsory education did wonders for the quality of life of youth; at the same time, they inverted the economics of families. Children became an expense rather than a resource. Given effective family planning, it’s no wonder that family sizes plummeted in the developed world. CNN reported that the average cost of raising a child from birth to age 18 in the US is now $241,080.
“Too Much Trouble”
With family life out of reach for many Japanese, young adults are adapting to this new reality in a variety of ways. Some are doubling down on their professional lives, leaving little or no energy for building relationships that could lead to marriage or family. Others retreat into mindless entertainment or pornography. Still others, cowed by dismal employment prospects and sky-high housing prices, refuse to seek employment or even leave their family home when they reach adulthood. Overall, Japan’s infrastructure and commerce supports full-time, always-on workers with ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores and vending machines that provide everything from hot food to changes of underwear — comforts that once would have been provided through a family.
One common refrain heard again and again from young Japanese is that relationships and all that follows them are simply “too much trouble,” and that they “can’t be bothered.”
Loss of Habitat
Usually when we think of depopulation, we think of whales or pandas, but not human beings. Although likening ourselves to animals can be distasteful, what we know about nature conservation has something to tell us about what’s happening now in Japan, and has the potential to affect humanity on a global scale.
Animal species become endangered or extinct when their natural habitat is damaged or destroyed. Human beings, as adaptable as we are, have definite needs which must be met for survival, and these survival needs are easy to recognize. But to build romantic relationships and eventually families, people need more. In Japan we’re starting to see exactly what happens when these needs go unmet.
For young people to think seriously about relationships, they require a certain amount of economic security, free time, and adequate living space. If earning a living consumes all time and energy, then dating is “too much trouble” as the Japanese put it. Being able to move out of the family house is another obstacle to successful relationships. In the US, the 1950s were famous for post-war “starter homes”: small, affordable, but livable homes for new families formed after World War II. Currently, zoning laws require new buildings to be of a certain size which is a lot larger and more expensive than the 1950 starter homes. When I shopped for my own house several years ago, I felt pushed into buying a much larger house than I needed due to what was on offer.
As reported above, there are the growing financial demands of children and family. Given CNN’s figures, it costs roughly half a million dollars per couple simply to maintain the population with two children per couple. Coming quickly behind this need is the time and energy needed to attend and raise healthy, happy children. If employers have no tolerance for working parents, then we’ve destroyed the economic habitat that would support children.
Many countries provide parental leave for parents with newborns, as well as tax breaks and other benefits for parents. Policies like these can distribute some of the growing expenses of having a family, but not much past infancy.
Housing, in addition to being expensive, also seems to be less family-friendly. Neighborhoods without sidewalks and having few public parks exact an additional toll on parents who must now shepherd children to and from school and structured play-dates instead of simply being turned out to play in the neighborhood.
Japan’s baby bust is a story of unintended consequences made over decades. While businesspeople were optimizing quarterly profits and politicians were looking to the next electoral cycle, the bare necessities for successful family life fell out of scope. I believe it is only through greater awareness and cooperation can Japan create communities that make dating, family and child-rearing attractive alternatives once again.
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