Monday, January 31, 2011

When money keeps the stork at bay

Jan 30, 2011

Young Japanese women outearning their male peers, so it's hard to find a match
By Susan Long

As Singapore frets over its rising rate of singles and a birth rate so low that many demographers fear it may never recover, it is worth looking at just how much worse it can get.

And most instructive on just how these dire statistics, coupled with rapid ageing, will play out is Japan, which has seen its population shrinking since 2005.

Its fast declining marriage rate and rising rate of singlehood, which is about 47 per cent among men aged 30 to 34 and 32 per cent among women in the same age group, lead the pack in Asia today. The latest corresponding rate of singlehood among Singapore citizens is 43 per cent for men and 31 per cent for women.

Even if few Asian countries now subscribe to the 'flying geese' economic model of development, where wild geese fly in formation like aircraft in an inverse V, led by Japan (the first Asian country to industrialise), they are fearfully watching the flight of the head geese into the depopulation abyss.

And they are taking copious notes. For a declining population has become a dreaded demographic destiny shared by post-industrialised Asian societies where men and women are still bound by traditional gender roles.

As they watch Japan's prime ministerial musical chairs continue to play out, amid a sputtering economy and futile stabs at fixing labour market rigidities like seniority-based wages, what is becoming increasingly clear to onlookers is that if nothing gets done, things don't stay bad, they get worse.

Of late, the winds of change have been storming the traditional, patriarchal ramparts of Japanese society. Socio-economic changes are sweeping across Japan, with the latest news that young Japanese women now outearn their male peers.

Income for single women under 30 hit an average of 218,156 yen (S$3,380) a month in 2009, inching past the 215,515 yen of their male counterparts for the first time, according to a recent Japanese internal affairs ministry survey.

The change, which saw women's incomes surge 11.4 per cent and men's incomes fall 7 per cent from the previous survey five years ago, was driven by the global economic plunge and entrenched labour trends.

For one thing, many more men work in manufacturing than women in Japan's export-dependent economy, and the sector was hard-hit by the 2008 Lehman Brothers collapse,whereas women tend to work in services, medicine and nursing care, which are booming with Japan's ageing population.

Economists have cautioned that these figures may just be a one-off blip and it is too early to call it a trend. But what is clear is that sweeping change is imminent, no matter the preparedness of policymakers.

With the prospects of Japanese men dimming in a society where men are widely expected to be the family's breadwinner, many just don't feel 'qualified' to marry any more, or even be in a relationship.

The result: They don't even bother to try.

Prominent Japanese sociologist Masahiro Yamada of Chuo University noted that most young Japanese women still yearn to be housewives, but struggle to find a husband who earns enough to support them. As a result, half of all young Japanese of prime marrying age - 20 to 34 - still live with their parents, either in hope or resignation.

Professor Yamada's research showed that two out of five Japanese women hope to marry a man who earns more than six million yen a year but the 'supply of such men is limited', he remarked wryly, as they make up only 3.5 per cent of the eligible population.

The reality for Japanese men is that with salaries down more than 12 per cent over the last decade and the dismantling of lifetime employment, marriage has become a luxury good few can afford.

This is exacerbated by the fact that about a third of the Japanese workforce - many of them young men - are now irregular workers, who toil endlessly in low-paying part-time, contract or temporary jobs they can be fired from any time.

There is also a growing number of 'freeters', mostly youngsters who skip from one part-time job to another, never laying down enough savings to make long-term plans.

Of late, Japan has been panicking about the rise of soushoku-danshi (translated to 'herbivore, or grass-eating, males'). Surveys show up to three quarters of Japanese men under the age of 30 identify themselves as herbivores.

Named for their lack of interest in sex and their preference for quiet uncompetitive lives, herbivores have sparked a national debate on how decades of economic stagnation has rewired the Japanese male psyche.

Because of their fear of rejection, herbivores shun women and sex. They prefer nursing a Starbucks latte after work, pottering around the home pursuing quaint hobbies or taking long walks.

They avoid the fast lane in life, they don't aspire to own a Ferrari, and don't go out drinking with the boys. Their anaemic consumption is in turn affecting the sales of automobiles, electronics and consumer goods. And Japanese brewers are desperately introducing weaker beers to hold up flagging sales of alcoholic beverages.

Their risk aversion and lack of ambition - on both the professional and personal front - are also sapping the economy of vitality, making it harder to rekindle growth and end deflation.

The epic singlehood rate of young disenchanted Japanese men, who struggle with age-old expectations of being the breadwinner like their fathers, amid growing economic uncertainty and the rising earning power of female peers, holds several cautionary tales for Singapore.

If self-worth or marriageability is defined in economic terms in a society, and financial stability constantly pitched as a prerequisite to marriage, many perils lurk.

For one thing, it further entrenches the cost-benefit framework of looking at marriage and family size, one which the state - even those in a fiscal position to afford the most generous pro-family subsidies - cannot rationally hope to win.

For another, whenever the economy goes into a tail spin, the inevitable conclusion would be: 'Not now'. 'Not now', before long, becomes 'not ever'.

Putting less stock in the male 'provider' role will help too, as well as steering girls' aspirations away from snaring a well-to-do husband towards being a co-breadwinner themselves.

Otherwise, going forward in an increasingly volatile economy, as the Japan example has shown, few males will dare to even contemplate tying the knot, or for starters, even dare to chase a girl.

But mostly, Japan's predicament magnifies that the falling marriage and fertility rate is a problem to solve when money - and relative youth - is on your side.

Because even though Japanese policymakers know full well what the solutions are, from rolling out more creches to increasing child allowances and funding, time - and their young men - are no longer on their side.

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