The past century has been one of unprecedented global population growth. While the number of people in the world doubled from 0.8 to 1.6 billion between 1750 and 1900, the 20th century saw a near quadrupling to 6.1 billion. In the past 15 years alone, more than 1.2 billion have been added to that. Worries about “overpopulation” can be seen everywhere from the UK to Sub-Saharan Africa.
So it may have been a surprise to some to see Japan, the world’s third largest economy, posting the first population decline since 1920, falling 0.7% from five years earlier. A persistently low birth rate is the main reason.
Japan has been worrying for a while now about whether its population may one day become extinct. In 2006, the Japanese National Institute of Population and Social Security Research predicted that by the end of the present century, population would decline to around 50m, falling further to 10m by the end of the next.
By 2350 just 1m would be left and by the year 3000 just 62 people would be rattling around the Land of the Rising Sun. (Perhaps by then we would be living underwater).
Neither current nor projected population decline is unique to Japan. Many East Asian societies are forecast to encounter rapid decline over the coming centuries. A similar exercise to that of Japan was published in South Korea, with the rather more generous assumption of 10,000 Koreans left by 2503.
Neither is the narrative of population decline unique to Asia. Current population decline in some Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, has resulted from both low fertility and high rates of emigration. And the projected demographic travails of Germany – which has one of Europe’s lowest fertility rates – have even been cited as a reason for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s approach to the refugee crisis.
Quality, not quantity
So how worried should we be about this? Classical approaches to demography and economics, which see population size as critical to GDP growth, would suggest we should be very concerned. This is multiplied by the link to population ageing. This is often referred to as a “timebomb” in terms of its effects on both economic growth and the sustainability of social security and health and social care systems.
Recently, however, demographers have tried to move the discussion on from concern about over- or under-population. Instead, they have focused on the raw number of people as just one variable in either economic growth or sustainability, which is multiplied by lifestyle, education, savings and so on.
In this view, the total quantity of people is less important than their quality (defined by, for example, education or health). Not only can this mean that population decline can be weathered by increased labor (and capital) productivity, but the “timebomb” of population ageing can also, to a degree, be diffused.
Political point scoring
So, if this the case, why are governments like Japan and Korea so worried about population decline?
Population decline can, to a degree, be seen as a sense of national weakness: a lack of “vitality”. These nationalistic sentiments can link into discussions not only of the strength of a culture, but can also have consequences for (the perception of) national defense. It is perhaps no surprise that the South Korean “extinction” forecasts were commissioned by a right-wing politician. In Taiwan, low birth rates were referred to by the previous president as a “national security concern”.
Its possible that these extinction forecasts do not represent a real concern at all, but are just another tool used by the state to urge citizens into reproducing.
On a much more local level of abstraction, however, we need to look at where depopulation is occurring the most. In Japan, the capital Tokyo is actually growing rapidly. Yet in Japan, as elsewhere in East Asia, rural depopulation is occurring on a tremendous scale – driven by both low fertility and migration to towns and cities. A recent book called Local Extinctions on this became a bestseller in Japan. In China, some villages are almost uniquely composed of the elderly.
The consequences of this for the economic and social prospects of rural areas are clear. To take one specific example, we can look at an article which received far less press than the Japanese population decline story, but is just as apt. Over the last two years, two colleges in Pingtung County at the southern tip of Taiwan have closed down. While there may have been other reasons at play, the local media explicitly state that this is “due to the nation’s dwindling student population”, which in turn is ascribed to the low birth rate.
What we see here in Pingtung County is a reflection of the dramatic changes which are forecast to occur among youth populations around the world over the next 50 years.
As the chart below shows, which I presented at the recent UUK International Higher Education Forum), the world is roughly split into two – between countries where the population aged 15-19 will increase (almost threefold in the case of Niger) and where it will decrease.
Some examples of youth population decline from 2015 to 2050 include Taiwan (-46%), Thailand (-38%), Poland and South Korea (both -31%), Brazil (-22%) and China (-21%). As education systems are still growing in many of these countries, it would be wrong to translate these figures into inevitable school and college closures. But it might suggest that through the basic principles of supply and demand, quality in education – especially higher education – could potentially increase as students become more discerning. This would then have impacts of total numbers of institutions.
The countries which make up the present majority of the world’s population, therefore, have reached “peak youth”. Not only will younger people have to bear a greater burden of supporting an ageing population, but there are concerns that as they become demographically marginalized, so too might they become politically marginalized.
Meanwhile, the tremendous growth in the youth population elsewhere (primarily in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East) has raised concerns well beyond those about “over-population”. These include worries over outward migration, exploitation of land and resources, and unrest due to a so-called “youth bulge”.
To me it is clear that realising the potential of both this dwindling and booming young population will be the key to truly determining whether rapid population decline or growth will have a negative effect on either local, national or global societies. Improved, relevant education and skills alongside access to decent employment and a strong political voice are the key priorities for this.
Why is Japan in trouble?
The Japanese now have one of the lowest fertility rates in the world, and at the same time, one of the highest longevity rates. As a result, the population is dropping rapidly, and becoming increasingly weighted toward older people. After peaking seven years ago, at 128 million, Japan’s population has been falling — and is on a path to decline by about a million people a year. By 2060, the government estimates, there will be just 87 million people in Japan; nearly half of them will be over 65. Without a dramatic change in either the birthrate or its restrictive immigration policies, Japan simply won’t have enough workers to support its retirees, and will enter a demographic death spiral. Yet the babies aren’t coming.
The British newspaper The Observer recently caused an international stir by reporting that Japanese youth have lost interest in sex. The sensationalist conclusion was mostly based on a single statistic: a survey that found that 45 percent of women and 25 percent of men ages 16 to 24 said they were not looking to have sex. The article also cited the phrase sekkusu shinai shokogun, or “celibacy syndrome,” as if it were a major trend. In reality, more Japanese singles are having sex than in past decades. In 1990, 65 percent of unmarried women and 45 percent of unmarried men had never had sex; today, the figures are 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively. “Of course Japanese have sex,” Asian studies professor Jeff Kingston told Bloomberg.com. “If the number of love hotels is any barometer, it seems like many are getting plenty of it.”
Is celibacy syndrome a myth?
Not entirely. There clearly is a subset of Japanese youth who have withdrawn from dating. Instead, they focus on online porn and games like Nintendo’s Love Plus, in which players conduct a relationship with an anime girlfriend. Hundreds of thousands of young men are known as hikikomori, shut-ins who eschew human contact and spend their days playing video games and reading comics in their parents’ homes. (See below.) But most Japanese young people do have friends and relationships — they’re just not settling down. The marriage rate has plummeted, and with it the birthrate, since out-of-wedlock births are rare in Japan. In 1975, just 21 percent of women and 49 percent of men under 30 had never been married; by 2005, the figures were 60 percent of women and 72 percent of men.
Why aren’t they getting married?
There are both cultural and economic barriers. In Japanese tradition, marriage was more about duty than romantic love. Arranged marriages were the norm well into the 1970s, and even into the 1990s most marriages were facilitated by “go-betweens,” often the grooms’ bosses. Left to their own devices, Japanese men aren’t sure how to find wives — and many are shying away from the hunt, because they simply can’t afford it. Wages have stagnated since the 1990s, while housing prices have shot up. A young Japanese man has good reason to believe that his standard of living would drop immensely if he had to house and support a wife and children — especially considering that his wife likely wouldn’t be working.
Why make that assumption?
In Japan, marriage usually ends a woman’s working career, even though most women are well educated. Once they have a child, women face strong social pressure to quit their jobs and assume very traditional roles, serving both the husband and the child. Mothers who want to keep working are stigmatized and usually find that employers won’t hire them. Child care is scarce and expensive, while Japan’s brutal work culture often demands that employees work more than 50 hours a week. Japanese husbands aren’t much help either — they spend an average of one hour a day helping with the children and household chores, compared with three hours for husbands in the U.S. and Western Europe. “You end up being a housewife with no independent income,” bank worker Eri Tomita told The Observer. “It’s not an option for women like me.”
Could this tradition change?
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants it to. This fall, he renamed his economic plan from Abenomics to Womenomics. “Creating an environment in which women find it comfortable to work,” he told the U.N. General Assembly, “is no longer a matter of choice for Japan. It is instead a matter of the greatest urgency.” He promised to expand day care offerings and promote flexible work arrangements so that women would no longer have to choose between work and childbearing, and he challenged businesses to promote women to senior management. Most economists, though, think that the trends won’t change fast enough to prevent a real demographic crisis. “Sooner or later,” said economics professor Heizo Takenaka, “Japan will have to face the necessity of immigration.”
An epidemic of shut-ins
For years, Takeshi hid from the world, playing video games all night and sleeping all day, eating from a tray his mother left outside his room. He was a hikikomori, one of an estimated 1 million Japanese teens and young men who have become shut-ins, with virtually no human contact beyond their parents. Some of the hikikomori first withdraw because of some social embarrassment — bad grades, or a romantic rejection. The longer they drop out, the more shame they feel in a society where one’s status and reputation are paramount and hard to change. Parents, and especially mothers, often enable the withdrawal. “In Japan, mothers and sons often have a symbiotic, codependent relationship,” says psychiatrist Tamaki Saito, who first identified the disorder in the 1990s. Takeshi re-entered society after four years, thanks to a government program that sends female outreach counselors known as “rental sisters” to coax the hikikomori out of the house. But that program doesn’t always work. As one shut-in of 15 years said, “I missed my chance.”