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Economic Opportunity and the Demographic Trend

In discussing Japan’s low fertility rate and aging population the media (certainly in the U.S., though so far as I can tell, elsewhere as well) has inclined to the crude and the simple-minded, the hot-button and sensationalist — and per usual overlooked important aspects of the matter.

Thus we have stories about Japan as a country of “forty year old virgins,” and tales of young people abandoning the prospect of human contact in preference of “virtual” love. But we hear little of what those who look at the business and economics pages know very well — namely that Japan has been in a bad way here for decades, with the most significant consequences for this matter.

After all, in a modern society where economic life is individualistic and setting up a household and having children is very expensive and little help will be forthcoming from any source the responsible thing to do is to only attempt to do so when one has, among much else, a reasonable expectation of an income over the long-term that will be at least adequate to raise children “decently” — which is to say, at a middle-class standard — the prerequisite for which has been a “good job” offering sufficient security of tenure in a position paying a middle class wage that they can expect to go on receiving one for a good long time to come. And that is exactly what has become very elusive in recent decades — as the economic growth engine that looked so impressive in the 1950s and 1960s stalled out, and as Fordism’s vague promises of generalized middle-classness faded Japan has been a signal case as the fastest-growing of the large industrialized nations became the slowest-growing nearly overnight, and, to go by one calculation, per capita Gross Domestic Product fell by half during this past generation, all as the old notion of “lifetime employment” waned what can seem a lifetime ago.

Quite naturally those who would have been inclined (and of course, everyone is not necessarily inclined) refrain, with any impression that this is the case reinforced by what we see overseas, not least in those two oldest of the major Western nations, Italy and Germany — their similarities and their differences. Italy comes closer than any other Group of Seven nation to Japan in its shift from brisk growth to stagnation (and, even when we use the more conventional numbers, economic contraction) in another spectacle of a modern country with modern attitudes to these things seeing its birth rate fall. (Indeed, in every single year from 2013 forward Italy’s fertility rate has been lower than Japan’s, averaging 1.3 against Japan’s 1.4 for 2013–2020, with the 2020 rate 1.2 against Japan’s 1.3.)

Of course, Germany may not seem to fit the profile so neatly given its image as an economic success story. However, it is worth noting that, even apart from the qualified nature of its success (Germany remains a manufacturing power, but is also a long way away from its “Wirtschaftswunder”-era dynamism), and the fact that its social model is moving in the same direction as everyone else’s (with all that means for young people starting their lives), its figures vary significantly by region. In particular Germany’s high average age obscures the cleavage between what tend to be the older (and less prosperous) eastern regions as against the more youthful (and more prosperous) western regions.

Alas, a media which makes a curse of the word “millennial,” and sneers at the idea of working people wanting any security at all as “entitlement” on their part, has little interest and less sympathy in such matters — while knowing full well that stories about it are less likely to do well in the “attention economy” than stories about “virtual girlfriends.” Boding poorly for our understanding of the matter in the recent past, it also bodes poorly for our ability to understand it in the future — in which the ability of young people to get along economically in the world may not be the only factor, but nevertheless a hugely important one, however much the opinion makers of today would like one to think otherwise.

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Nader Elhefnawy

Nader Elhefnawy


Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.