Flight into fantasy

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.

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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21 Responses to Flight into fantasy

  1. milliganp says:

    This is not merely about demographic changes and a decline in people wanting to be couples. If marriage is a sacramental sign and no-one sees marriage as a desireable state, or they defer marriage to a time in life when the ability to bond strongly is less probable the whole economy of family life reflecting the internal life of the Trinity is diminnished.
    Scewtape is having a field day.

  2. John Thomas says:

    I blame materialism – the belief that we are here by accident, we are just another kind of animal of no especial worth, and this life is the totality of human existence. Believe these things and there’s no point breeding, or doing anything much … The decline of the sexual obsession is indeed new, though … will it (non-sexual obsession) really catch on in the West? – well, not in the forseeable future, I think (sex for reproduction – oh, of course, that’s something else entirely … that’s very much with us already …).

    • St.Joseph says:

      My comments on the Post (“your pension in peril”) 21st June2013.still stands, so I think the talk by Janet ESmith. to be found on’ Lifeissues.net” Moral use of Natural family Planning’,if digested as it is is quite a long detailed definition of Humanea Vitea-to which is little understood as being a prophetic message from Pope Paul V1 easy to be understood by all!

      Also it may be of interest to mention the Archdiocese of Westminster is holding a Conference to focus on beauty and the Family.
      Details can be found on the office for Marriage and Family Life in Collaboration with St Patrick’s Soho London beginning March 1st-3rd 2014. with some very prominent speakers. £50 for the whole session or daily including meals(except lunch).
      This is well worth exploring so that we can have a clearer understanding of what Holy Mother Church teaches!

    • Alan says:

      If I can’t find it in myself and my existence to bother with anything then I can’t help but wonder what there was to motivate God.

      • Vincent says:

        If you start from the assumption that God is in himself the source of everything than you accept with that, that he is his own motivation. He is the ultimate self-starter!

  3. Vincent says:

    A little excursion into Genesis – taking it as presenting us with deep but not historical truths…

    Eve was fashioned from the body of Adam, and this is connected to their becoming ‘one flesh’. At that time they were naked but not ashamed; they do not at that point have sexual congress.
    It is only after they have eaten from the Tree that they feel ashamed. We must suppose that at this point the harmony of their sexuality was broken and the tensions of lust were released.

    Once expelled from the Garden, Adam ‘knew his wife, and she conceived.’ I understand that in this context the knowledge is not so much information as a total experience of each other.

    This account suggests to me that being one flesh and experiencing each other through congress is the essential factor. Conception is the biological outcome of this, but not its first purpose.
    So I wonder whether we are right to build so much about sexual regulations on the basis of reproduction. We should put our first emphasis on the closeness of the marital relationship. This tells us that sexual congress outside marriage is a lie. It carries the form of two in one flesh but it denies the total and permanent self-giving which two in one flesh requires. Furthermore, the sin of adultery – as listed in the Commandments — is primarily the rupture of the existing reality of two people in one flesh.

  4. milliganp says:

    One of the issues I believe we seriously need to consider is the detachment between physical and social sexual development. In most “natural” societies women marry shortly after they become capable of having children. As an example the Annunciation to Mary probably occurred before she was 15. Men became marriageable when they were capable of supporting their wife and family – which was typically several years older; an extreme example being rural Ireland where 16 year old girls were often married off to men in their late 30s or older.
    It would seem we are most capable adapting to the needs of another when young – without denying than many do form successful marriages later in life.
    While we have a society that emphasises education and career as more important than family life we will be trapped in the inevitable effects.
    As an example of a mid-way solution – I know several families of Keralan origin; it would seem in that region education is highly valued and women and men expect to complete tertiary education. However the social norm is that Marriage takes place within a few years of graduation.

    • St.Joseph says:

      The easy access to contraception and abortion also the media and social behaviour among our young people and general public scandals of adultery change the whole concept of marriage and religious life!

      • Quentin says:

        St Joseph, you might be interested in this link.


        It describes briefly how the womb judges whether or not an embryo is fit for implantation.

        One of the strongest arguments for the embryo or foetus having an independent life, and not being merely an appendage of its mother, is that it would normally be rejected as a foreign body because of the father’s genes. However the biological processes of pregnancy take special steps to avoid this happening.

  5. St.Joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin. I am not sure if that would be acceptable in regards to its morality.
    I need to digest it and read more. My first thoughts are that used for IVF it would be no different,the babies are aborted anyway and only the healthy one allowed to continue to grow
    .Another way of choosing the survival of the fittest As we believe the soul is there from the moment of conception not implantation.
    Perhaps I am missing the point.What do you think?

    • Quentin says:

      St Joseph, it’s a little more complicated than that. In Donum Vitae, the formal teaching is that the ‘entity’ immediately resulting from conception must be treated as a human person because of its built-in destiny but it carefully refrains from saying that it is definitely a human person.

      There are are some theologians in good standing who argue that until the embryo is beyond the stage of possibly developing into two embryos (within a very few days) its actual identity as a person is not established.

      • St.Joseph says:

        I understand what you are saying-however do these theologians know this for sure. Only God knows this!. Identical twins or twins from 2 ovums would also be an example of, ‘when’,a second ovulation can happen within 24hrs,hence the reason for waiting a further 24 hrs for fertility to return. That to me is a matter to be left in the hands of the Lord.It will be up to 10 days for implantation to take place by that time time the ‘baby’s identity will be well established.
        If the womb is going to be prepared to reject ‘babies that are not fit, that does not say much for the perfectly existing handicapped children alive today!
        I may be looking at this through a darkened mirror and getting the wrong end of the stick (to coin a phrase) but think it can be just another way of messing about with Gods Creation!
        God left us in charge of how we deal with natural causes, but we are not yet able to control the storms that Jesus did on the waters over the Lake, We do have to leave some things to God and place our trust in Him. Without taking things too far.
        As I said before I need to understand more before I say it is a breakthrough! I don’t mean to be negative.

      • Quentin says:

        St Joseph, I think it’s simpler than that. Our biology is in many ways of self-correcting. For instance some early miscarriages are attributed to a damaged foetus, and lots of potential pregnancies end almost before they have begun. Nothing new in that. That’s how God allows it to happen. When I gave the link to the study I wasn’t making a moral point; I had in mind your wish to know as much as possible about the processes involved.

  6. Iona says:

    That’s an interesting looking website, Quentin.

  7. milliganp says:

    Quentin, in your June 21 posting you stated:-
    “We have to accept the plain fact that, as prosperity spreads across the world, so individuals will turn increasingly to methods of contraception and, as occurs in many cultures, to direct abortion. While the Church will be able to ameliorate this through advocacy of natural family planning, experience tells us that the effect will not be large.”
    I do not see how using natural family planning vs artificial contraception per se will ameliorate the decline in the birth rate – family planning is family planning no matter what method is used; China successfully uses natural family planning as part of its one child policy. I know “good” Catholics who use NFP and have 1 or 2 children and “average” Catholics who use artificial means who have 3-6 children.
    Contraception is the means, not the end. The challenge the world faces is that people believe having fewer children is good and the more “developed” we become the fewer children we see as appropriate.
    The second challenge we face in the West is that people don’t even want to get married and have children – that is the elephant in the room – we need to start talking about family life – not contraceptive means.
    Frankly I believe if we keep banging on about NFP we create a dialogue of the deaf with the 50M+ people in the UK who are not Catholic and the 90%+ of Catholics who do not use NFP.

    • Quentin says:

      I refer to natural family planning because I want to head off arguments that we can realistically expect this method to solve the mismatch between our natural fertility rate (which developed in far more primitive circumstances than today) and our needed fertility rate which is about a third of this.

      We don’t need to worry about this sort of overpopulation because the rest of the world will use artificial measures, including abortion. We can look on with disapproval but be jolly glad it’s happening.

    • St.Joseph says:

      Don’t believe that it is only Catholics that understand their fertility! I taught more non-Catholics of all faiths and none . It is an insult to their intelligence if we say or think .otherwise.
      I did not study it or teach it because I am a Catholic.!

      • St.Joseph says:

        Yes Quentin, and I do thank you for that information. As it will also make me aware of what is happening.
        Years ago people used to say that a miscarriage was Gods way of taking unto Himself if a baby was seriously handicapped ,and they would become His Angels. One way of helping a mother to come to terms with it.thinking tey have a soul and no earthly body. The may be resurrected on the last day and we will see what they become

      • milliganp says:

        Yet again, St Joseph, you grab the wrong end of the stick. I actually mentioned the popularity of NFP in China, where it is used to assist the one child policy. Some people use NFP because of non-moral reasons (women who do not want to run the risks associated with the pill being an example) and some for moral reasons from other faiths. The reality, though, is that the Catholic church presents NFP as a moral chice which has little impact on those who do not share our moral foundations. Before we enter into conversation about contraception we have to engage the issue of family life – including the life-long commitment of marriage.

  8. St.Joseph says:

    millignap,as long as you know when I speak about family planning I am distinguishing it from early abortions.
    That is the only thing that concerns me..Not contraceptives.

    I am sorry you find it a nuisance to explain what you mean ..
    It is polite to ask someone why they ‘grab the wrong end of the stick’,-when the two ends are not made clear. instead of flippant remarks. Civility is no load to carry.!

  9. milliganp says:

    I had a chat with my son, who is a bit more worldly wise about this. According to him, in Japan the principle type of pornography is Manga porn. This involves cartoon characters where females are young (pubescent) with big eyes and exaggerated bodies. Having watched this porn “normal” Japanese women do not arouse desire in Japanese men, and have little interest in fulfilling the fantasies these men have created through watching porn.
    Now this is uniquely Japanese. However in our own society many if not most young people are having their ideas of what constitutes normal sexual behaviour formed by exposure to pornography. Sexuality as an intimate shared bond and an expression of love has no connection with the messages they receive by exposure to pornography. Devoid of any meaningful accepted moral compass what can we expect?
    On another, perhaps not dissimilar note, my son was surprised –attending a joint family / church birthday party for his mother – that there were actually lots of young people who believe in God; he thought religion was entirely a matter for the over 50s. The sad thing is that most of the children at that party will be exposed to the valueless sexual attitudes of their wider generation.

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