It’s the kind of stat you might casually tell a friend at a bar: For the last six years, Japan has sold more adult diapers than baby diapers. But Japan’s fertility problems are far more grave than toilet-related trivia. Over the last decade, Japan has seen its elderly population swell, new family-planning stall, and its economy shrink because of persistently low spending. Economists are now calling the situation a “demographic time bomb,” and some Japanese researchers have even created a doomsday clock that ticks off the seconds until Japan’s population extinction.
But according to one political scientist, all hope isn’t lost so long as Japan starts paying closer attention to half its population.
Creating opportunities for women
Japan’s government, led by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has taken some small, creative approaches to encourage young people to start families. It’s hosted speed-dating events, held fatherhood seminars where bachelors play with dolls, and pushed large companies to give people more time off at work.
Those measures may be helpful in the short-term, says Yale University political scientist Frances Rosenbluth, but to really address the demographic time bomb, more profound changes are in order. In particular, the government has an obligation to recognize the value women bring into the labor force, according to Rosenbluth.
Whether it’s through tax breaks for hiring female managers or increasing parental leave for fathers, companies need a greater financial incentive to improve people’s work-life balance. Only then, when people have more disposable income and the free time to date, get married, and start families, will the economy get back on track, says Rosenbluth.
As it stands, however, Japanese women don’t have much incentive to have kids. Women start out making roughly the same as men, Rosenbluth says, but a demanding work culture quickly forces them to choose between motherhood and professional success as they hit their late 20s and early 30s. As a result, women in Japan make about 30% less than men.
“The Mommy penalty is big,” Rosenbluth tells Business Insider. In response, women have begun choosing their careers over children. Men, in turn, have receded from the dating scene, too.
Changing cultural attitudes
Japan’s work-heavy culture developed in the aftermath of World War II, when loyalty became a hallmark of employment. In exchange for companies agreeing to keep employees on for life, employees vowed to commit the whole of their time and effort to their career.
As a result, women who now decide to become mothers end up paying a price: They are seen as less valuable to a company and have a harder time scaling the corporate ladder.
That’s why bottom-up policies won’t work, Rosenbluth says. The problem is with the culture of lifetime employment and the consequences of people who don’t buy into the system. “If there’s someone who’s willing to work around the clock, the promotion is not going to go to the cool dad who’s playing with his kid on the playground,” says Rosenbluth.
“What the government has to do, and there’s no way around it, is subsidize the cost to firms of hiring women,” she says. “This is a hard thing for center-right government to do, because it’s socializing the cost of family work.”
According to recent surveys, that may be just what younger Japanese people are looking for. In 2010, 86% of men and 89% of women said they planned to marry some day, but in 2016 many said they were resorting to pairing off with friends. Without enough time to date, the evidence suggests, even the interest to do so has started to disappear.
According to Rosenbluth, it’s up to the federal government to cater to those needs and foster new attitudes among older working citizens. Businesses will need to break tradition and start rewarding people “who aren’t working around-the-clock,” she says. “That’s a hard one.”