“Why,” the online newspaper The Guardian asked recently, “have young people in Japan stopped having sex?” Behind that titillating headline was a serious situation.
Although most people are aware of the perils of over-population, little attention has been paid to under-population, until now.
The test case that much of the world is watching is Japan.
Japan has the world’s lowest birthrate, too low to produce the young people who can replace the elderly who are retiring. A telling statistic: In that country, adult incontinence pants outsold baby diapers last year for the first time.
In part, this is the result of what Japanese media are calling the “celibacy syndrome” — a situation in which fewer young people are interested in romantic relationships or with starting a family. Educated young women realize that having a baby in that country puts an end to most career ambitions, and faced with that choice they choose their work.
Meanwhile, Japanese men chafe at the demands placed on them by the tradition of the husband being the breadwinner. Complicating matters is the fact that to raise a family often takes two salaries, which means the wife must continue to work.
Many of these strains are similar to those felt in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, when women (and many men) broke free from the gender roles society had imposed on their parents. It was a cultural revolution that is still being felt in some quarters.
However, a declining population brings with it a host of problems, from the size of the labor force to how to manage an infrastructure designed and built to serve more people than are there to use it.
In some countries, problems like these could be solved by immigration, but that in turn creates new problems for society and culture. Although Japan is an extreme case, young people throughout Europe and the Americas are marrying later, if they marry at all. Where once single men and women in their 30s and 40s were considered an aberration, today they are increasingly common. If that trend continues, we may be looking to Japan for ways to deal with the consequences.