Is capitalism ‘productive’ or a city ‘diverse’ if they don’t leave room for children?
General view of Stik's painting "Big Mother" the tallest mural in the UK. Sophie Duval /EMPICS Entertainment   

Japan’s low birthrate – and shrinking population – is sometimes blamed on a chauvinistic culture in which women are forced to choose between having a career or having children.

But according to Alana Semuels for The Atlantic, Japanese men also find their options limited:

“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.”

In the West we think of Japan as the country of the ‘salaryman’ – the dedicated office worker in a job-for-life. But that is an increasingly outdated picture:

“…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… 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.”

Such a precarious living is a poor position from which to settle down:

“About 30 percent of irregular workers in their early 30s are married, compared to 56 percent of full-time corporate employees…”

Indeed, it’s a poor position from which to look for a partner in life:

“A recent survey of Japanese people aged 18 to 34 found that nearly 70 percent of unmarried men and 60 percent of unmarried women aren’t in a relationship.”

Even those who have the financial security that goes with a regular job find themselves with the time for anything other than work (thanks to a work culture of pathological presenteeism – which employers are happy to exploit).

It’s a grim picture, but I wonder if things are much better back home. Consider a big city like London, which, as we’re always told, is vibrant, dynamic and full of opportunity for the young. Which it is – just not the opportunity to start a family.

For young Londoners in reliable jobs, say in the civil service, the idea of buying or renting a family home is, for most, unthinkable. Unless supported by family, a much wealthier partner or by the state, raising children is something you typically leave London to do. Hence the net outflow of two age groups in particular: the 30-somethings and their kids.

Indeed, if it wasn’t for immigration, Britain’s capital would be a dying place. Samuel Johnson once said that “if a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” But in the 21st century, it is London that seems tired of life.