Why Culture Matters for Demographics

Orb in the World

Why Culture Matters for Demographics

Mother, daughter, grandaughter riding metro in japan. Aging, three generations.

With two days left in Paris, Lucian Perkins and I are roughly two thirds of the way through our field reporting for Orb’s transmedia story on ageing and eldercare. We’ve spoken to researchers, social scientists, care managers, elderly men and women and careworkers. Some of what I’ve learned bears out the data points I looked at before setting out. Other conversations offer additional clarity on trends. But some influencing factors have surfaced that I hadn’t taken into consideration. I’d like to acknowledge and discuss one of these even though it’s not easily quantifiable: culture (and history) matter to how societies age and respond to rapid aging.

Take marriage. In the 1930s 70% of Japanese marriages were arranged. Today, not so much; arranged marriages represent roughly 5%. What has replaced them is a mixed bag:

• love marriages (which nevertheless come with a package of obligations and expectations that Japanese women increasingly reject),
long term relations without cohabitation
sexual and romantic reticence (Japanese men’s withdrawal into virtual worlds may signal the future for Western countries)
• and even full on retreat from society.

Why is this significant?

Roughly 2% of births in Japan occur outside marriage, so if marriage rates fall, fertility rates almost certainly fall as well. And the share of marriages is down: In 2010, 16% of those aged 50 or under had never been married as opposed to 5% in 1970. In the West, in France in particular, marriage has also declined but cohabitation and civil unions, which have taken its place, have not harmed fertility rates and have quite likely boosted them. And then there’s single motherhood: In France 15% of children were born to single mothers in 2005, a proportion that may be higher today. In Japan, single motherhood remains extremely rare.

In Japan, one researcher, attempting to explain low birth rates references the low use of contraceptives in Japan, and suggests that couples forestall living together in an effort to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

All of which is a long way of saying that cultural norms in Japan haven’t changed as quickly or as much as they have in countries like France. This may be because the country remains largely closed to most immigrants and the influence they might bring to bear on cultural and gender norms. But perhaps it is also the speed at which Japan has industrialized, which means that Japan’s cultural values lag the modernity of its economy and technology.

Cultural norms are complex and multifaceted, and I don’t mean to characterize Japan as culturally regressive. For instance, interviews and research suggest that Japanese male nurses and care workers experience little or no stigma about entering a profession that in the US is viewed by many men as women’s work. That is a positive; In Japan men represent an important and under sourced pool of care workers in the absence of immigrants.

Culture also matters in terms of a society’s view of its obligations to the elderly, but that’s something to discuss in the transmedia story that we’re working on.

All of that said, economic factors are likely at least as important an influence on the choices that women make and how these influence fertility rates (and of course elder care.) Japan’s economy has undergone two decades of recession and/or extremely slow growth; which may have averted the cultural shifts that would otherwise have occurred as part of the country’s modernization. Instead, there has been a sort of hunkering down, as companies replaced lifetime employment with temporary work (particularly for women) and the society in general has become focused on saving income as much as possible.

I’ll explore the role of economic factors on total fertility rate (TFR) in another blog, as well as what TFR is. Meantime additional reading can be found here.