Last year I wrote a column (“Your pension in peril”, June 21) which drew attention to a major demographic problem: “The imbalance which occurs when the rate of fertility changes – causing a serious mismatch between a smaller working population and a larger retired population which has to be supported.” I referred to the work by Fr Stanislas de Lestapis SJ, on the problems likely to be faced by the Japanese, who had embraced widespread contraceptive programmes in the wake of World War II. Remembering that he wrote some 50 years ago, his foresight was uncanny. What happened to the Japanese since then provides a plausible scenario for the future of our society, and so we need to study and assess the issues.
The first figure to look at is the total fertility rate. This is the number of live births per woman of childbearing age. Remembering that a rate of 2.1 is required for the population to reproduce itself, we note that, in 1947, the Japanese rate was a comfortable 2.75. By 2012 the rate had dropped to 1.41. This of course has a compounding effect on successive generations. Combine that with improved longevity and the result is a population profile weighted heavily towards the old rather than the young. Japan has the highest median age of all countries at 41.3 years, rising to 53.2 by 2050.
This imbalance is disastrous. It means that a relatively small working population must provide for a large retired population with its pension needs and the costs of long-term healthcare. It also means, as Fr de Lestapis foresaw, that the higher echelons of business and government are clogged with the old, and leave little room for the more energetic and entrepreneurial young. Japan has been in and out of financial slump for a generation now. Its public debt stands at $10.46 trillion, or about twice its annual gross domestic product – the highest ratio of any country. The experts point to various policy mistakes, but even correct strategies cannot rescue a country which has lost its vigour.
One bizarre aspect of this loss of vigour is apparent in the attitudes to sex and marriage. About a third of unmarried women under 34 have no partner, and double that proportion of men. And many claim that they are “not even looking”. About a quarter of both sexes are virgins. Anecdotal reports suggest that committed relationships are hazardous, expensive, and interfere with other life choices.
A number of the young unmarried often prefer living with their parents, and thus improving their disposable income; they are known as the “parasitic singles”. But even in marriage, it has been reported, the incidence of sexual activity is about a third of that in America. No wonder the Japanese have one of the lowest birth rates in the world.
Perhaps the strangest phenomenon is the young men who show no interest in sex, but achieve their emotional satisfaction by sustaining fictional relationships with young girls who appear only in cartoon form in a game which is accessed through a tablet computer. Against a background of many years of economic stagnation, they have tuned out of the real world and opted for a retreat into fantasy. A recent survey found that 36 per cent of Japanese males aged between 16 and 19 declared that they had no interest in sex. We may, of course, dismiss these strange and dangerous outcomes as a product of unique Japanese culture. But before we write them off as eccentrics we might consider whether there are parallels in our own society.
We too have undergone a substantial drop in our fertility rate. It stands at 1.9. While this is not as serious as Japan, or even the European Union as a whole, we are aware that a combination of greater life expectation and lower birth rates is already threatening our prosperity, and the figures show us that we may have a more problematic mismatch in the future. Adjustments to public service pensions and steadily raising the retirement age are unpopular, but certainly necessary if we are to mitigate this. Our saving grace is that in Britain one in eight people were born abroad, compared to one in 60 in Japan. And it is the immigrants’ children who shore up our fertility rate. Channel 4’s Dispatches programme reported that, to achieve their desired retirement income, workers today must, on average, increase their monthly pension contribution by £644. That should make your eyes water.
There are some signs of diminishing regular sexual activity between couples in our society, but we have other trends which may be even more serious. There are many indications that committed relationships are on the wane. Nearly 50 per cent of live births are to unmarried parents. (For Japan, the figure is two per cent.) The general marriage rate per 1,000 of our population has fallen steeply from around 70 in the 1970s to around 20 today. Cohabitation is notorious for its instability, and the children pay the price.
More than three million adults aged between 20 and 34 continue to live with their parents. The reasons are often economic but the effect is to create a comfortable, extended adolescence for many. And the substantial usage of pornography, via the internet, suggests that fantasy sex is becoming an uncomplicated substitute for sex within a relationship.
If Screwtape were intent on creating an unhappy and unstable society, he would just sit back and allow these trends to continue. I fear for the future.