Japan’s Fertility Crisis A Demographic Time Bomb

Japan’s Fertility Crisis A Demographic Time Bomb.

If you’re of working age in Japan, daily life can mean 12- to 16-hour days punctuated by hurried meals and bookended by too little sleep. If you’re elderly, it can mean crushing loneliness. But no matter what your age is in Japan, the chances are good that some aspect of the country’s ongoing fertility crisis has touched your life. Over the last five years, a vicious cycle of low fertility and low consumer spending has led to trillions in lost GDP and a population decline of 1 million people. Economists have a bleak term for this: a demographic time bomb. These time bombs can take years, sometimes decades to form, and perhaps even longer to defuse. Here’s a taste of what Japan’s looks like, as it stands today.

Demographic experts say that countries need a replacement fertility rate of 2.2 children per woman to keep a population steady. Japan’s rate is just 1.41. In the aftermath of World War II, Japan focused its effort on rebuilding the population, which it did. But there was a clear downside to that economic growth. In the early 1950s, fertility rates hovered at a healthy 2.75 children per woman UN data shows. By 1960, as businesses asked more and more of their employees, the fertility rate had fallen to 2.08. The intense post-WWII work ethic has lasted. It’s common for Japanese workers to log shifts spanning more than half a day. Despite the ongoing crisis, this is largely how Japan manages to remain the third-largest economy in the world. On a daily basis, workers who stick to a strict professional hierarchy rise through a given company’s ladder. It’s reminiscent of US labour trends for most of the late-20th century. But there are clear downsides — including the lingering preference to hire male candidates over female ones. Following feminism’s slow build in Japan since the 1970s, today’s workers strive for equality between the sexes, something Japan’s pyramid-style corporate structure just isn’t built for. That’s because institutional knowledge is viewed as a big deal in Japan, Yale political scientist Frances Rosenbluth told Business Insider. Veteran accountants can’t expect to leave their current job and start a new one at the same pay grade, as managers are of the opinion that skills don’t transfer. As a result, both male and female workers tend to stick around, even if conditions are miserable.

At the end of a long, gruelling day, many people don’t have the time or energy to think about dating, let alone having kids. Surveys have found Japanese people still generally want to get married, but sex isn’t all that important in the short term. Not that work is necessarily any more fulfilling. “I do not see any joy in my job right now,” Yoshiko Onuki, who works in marketing for Nissan, told Business Insider. Her husband Takehiro echoed the sentiment, saying the routine of his job at a steel supply company has become “boring.” They both say they want to look for new jobs, although neither could specify when that change might occur. The Japanese government has taken extreme steps to counteract the downward spiral, including hosting speed dating events and giving bachelors a chance to experiment with fatherhood. In 2010, the government launched the Ikumen Project; a campaign meant to teach single men the art of fatherhood and help them find wives. The name ikumen comes from a term coined by advertisers to describe men who take an active role in raising their children. The all-male course includes instruction on bathing and changing babies, and provides a simulation of what life is like as a pregnant woman. Course instructor Takeshi Akiyama said he wants to help men offer a new perspective on adulthood and give them a leg up when searching for a partner. “Matchmaking agencies can advertise such men as having ‘extra value,’ by letting potential partners know he will support the marriage,” he told Reuters.

The pressure young people feel doesn’t just come from their employer; it also comes from the responsibility to pay more in social security costs, due to Japan’s growing elderly population. Today, the average Japanese person can expect to live more than 83 years. For women, the number is closer to 87. “An ageing population will mean higher costs for the government, a shortage of pension and social security-type funds, a shortage of people to care for the very aged, slow economic growth, and a shortage of young workers,” Harvard sociologist Mary Brinton told Business Insider. The ageing society has seen some extreme outcomes. Adult diapers, for instance, have outsold baby diapers in Japan for the last six years. The trend is a combination of both greater numbers of seniors and those seniors using diapers for longer than babies typically need them. Also, many jails are turning into de facto nursing homes, as Japanese elders account for 20% of all crime in the country. With no one else to care for them, many re-offend just to come back.

More serious ailments are also expected to rise, including dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Currently, dementia afflicts 5 million people in Japan or 4% of the population. Estimates predict that number will rise to 7 million by 2025. These threats are made even more serious given the growing crop of seniors who suffer from chronic loneliness. In Japan, families expect younger relatives to care for their elders. But constraints of time and money have prevented many people in younger generations from upholding that role. With fewer young people to care for them, these lonely seniors wait out their remaining years, sometimes a decade or more, in isolation, according to a New York Times report. In the most severe cases, people’s apartments become their tomb. Neighbours only find out they have died once the stench of death seeps through the walls. Some people have worked out pacts with their neighbours to watch out for signs they may have died, such as not closing the blinds or turning off the lights, the New York Times reported. “If it’s closed,” 91-year-old Chieko Ito told her neighbour, referring to a paper screen on her window, “it means I’ve died.”

To keep the economy in working order, Japan has turned to artificial intelligence and robotics to replace the young workers that never came up behind older generations. Japan now has two hotels run almost entirely by robots. They’re located in the cities of Nagasaki and Tokyo. There are robots to help people check in to the hotel, robots to carry their luggage to the appropriate room, and robots to haul people’s trash away. Japanese companies have also taken leaps in personal assistance technology, as with the robot Pepper, developed by SoftBank. In 2015, SoftBank began selling 1,000 Pepper robots for consumer use, at a base price of $1,600 per robot. The supply sold out in one minute. Pepper comes equipped with emotion-recognition software that analyses voice tones and facial expressions. It’s all part of Japan’s effort to replicate the things that humans can do, if only there were more people to do them. Eldercare robots have come to play a sizable role. What was once seen as a biological problem has now been turned into an engineering one. Robots are being taught how to do human tasks without any of the drawbacks that come with fatigue or impatient caregivers.

But on the other, it signals a tacit acknowledgement that a strong workforce is slowly becoming a thing of the past in Japan. The country has no plans to increase its share of immigrant labour. According to Brinton, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe firmly believes that Japan’s labour-force problem can be fixed without addressing the underlying shifts in culture and demographics. It’s a big bet, and one million of people will be dealing with for the unforeseeable future.

Credit: Chris Weller for The Business Insider, 4 January 2018.