Nicholas Eberstadt has an article in the latest edition of the Wilson Quarterly in which he examines what happens when a society stops sanctioning and practicing marriage as a norm and abandons childbearing. Looking at Japan’s past two and next few decades, he underlines some rather stunning statistical trends and cultural shifts:

Japan’s postwar fertility plunge has been so steep that it can be described as a virtual collapse. In 2008, barely 40 percent as many Japanese babies were born as in 1948. In fact, the country’s annual birth totals are lower today than they were a century ago—and if current projections come to pass, Japan will not have many more newborns in 2050 than it did in the 1870s.We can get a sense of the shape of things to come by comparing Japan’s current population profile with an estimate for 2040. Not even 30 years from now, more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older. Japan is already the world’s grayest society, with a median age of almost 45 years. By 2040 its median age, to go by U.S. Census Bureau projections, will rise to an almost inconceivable 55. (By way of comparison, the median age in the retirement haven of Palm Springs, California, is currently under 52 years.) [ . . . ]

But there is more. Japan’s historically robust (if perhaps at times stifling) family relations, a pillar of society in all earlier generations, stand to be severely and perhaps decisively eroded in the coming decades. Traditional “Asian family values”—the ideals of universal marriage and parenthood—are already largely a curiosity of the past in Japan. Their decay has set in motion a variety of powerful trends which virtually ensure that the Japan of 2040 will be a country with far greater numbers of aged isolates, divorced individuals, and adults whose family lines come to an end with them.

At its heart, marriage in traditional Japan was a matter of duty, not just love.

So what, if anything, can policymakers do to reverse the decline?
Nor is there much hope that pro-natalist policies, such as “baby bonuses,” would make a significant long-term difference. They have had at best limited success in other affluent societies. Singapore has aggressively promoted a variety of pro-natalist policies for more than two decades, yet its total fertility rate in 2011 was even lower than Japan’s. Decades of worldwide evidence suggest that birth levels depend critically on desired family size rather than “birth bribes.” To the degree that values and norms frame individuals’ views about family size, it is possible that some great change in public attitudes—an ideological or religious movement, a “national awakening,” or the like—could sweep Japan and increase the desire to bear children. But nothing like this has ever occurred in an affluent open society with fertility levels as low as Japan’s.

Read more, including anecdotes about rise of “rental relatives,” e-weddings, and other human simulacra, here .

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