TOKYO—Japan’s population is shrinking. For the first time since the government started keeping track more than a century ago, there were fewer than 1 million births last year, as the country’s population fell by more than 300,000 people. The blame has long been put on Japan’s young people, who are accused of not having enough sex, and on women, who, the narrative goes, put their careers before thoughts of getting married and having a family.
But there’s another, simpler explanation for the country’s low birth rate, one that has implications for the U.S.: Japan’s birth rate may be falling because there are fewer good opportunities for young people, and especially men, in the country’s economy. In a country where men are still widely expected to be breadwinners and support families, a lack of good jobs may be creating a class of men who don’t marry and have children because they—and their potential partners—know they can’t afford to.
“The gender stuff is pretty consistent with trends around the world—men are having a harder time,” said Anne Allison, a professor of cultural anthropology at Duke University who edited the recent collection of scholarly essays Japan: The Precarious Future. “The birth rate is down, even the coupling rate is down. And people will say the number-one reason is economic insecurity.”
This may seem surprising in Japan, a country where the economy is currently humming along, and the unemployment rate is below 3 percent. But the shrinking economic opportunities stem from a larger trend that is global in nature: the rise of unsteady employment. Since the postwar years, Japan had a tradition of “regular employment,” as labor experts commonly call it, in which men started their careers at jobs that gave them good benefits, dependable raises, and the understanding that if they worked hard, they could keep their jobs until retirement. Now, according to Jeff Kingston, a professor at Temple University’s Japan campus and the author of several books about Japan, around 40 percent of the Japanese workforce is “irregular,” meaning they don’t work for companies where they have stable jobs for their whole careers, and instead piece together temporary and part-time jobs with low salaries and no benefits. (Such temporary workers are counted as employed in government statistics.) Only about 20 percent of irregular workers are able to switch over to regular jobs at some point in their careers. According to Kingston, between 1995 and 2008, Japan’s number of regular workers decreased by 3.8 million while the number of irregular workers increased by 7.6 million.
Irregular workers in Japan are sometimes referred to as “freeters,” which is a combination of the word freelance and the German word arbeiter, which means “worker.” According to Kingston, the rise of irregular workers in Japan began in the 1990s, when the government revised labor laws to enable the wider use of temporary and contract workers hired by intermediary firms. Then, as globalization put more pressure on companies to cut costs, they increasingly relied on a temporary workforce, a trend that intensified during the Great Recession. “This is a major new development in Japan’s employment paradigm, as new graduates find it increasingly difficult to get a foothold on the career ladder as regular employees,” Kingston and Machiko Osawa, a professor at Japan Women’s University, write in “Risk and Consequences: The Changing Japanese Employment Paradigm,” an essay in Japan: The Precarious Future.
Read more at The Atlantic.