Youth Trends in Japan: Part Two –
"Parasite Singles" in Europe and Japan
Michael Kavanagh (Business Department, Dublin Institute of Technology) and J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
A full list of articles in this series can be found here.
Michael Kavanagh: In Part One of this series you cited a study in the UK which complemented some of the counter arguments made against the parasite singles theory of Masahiro Yamada. The UK study shows a very similar trend in Britain, but the English researchers refrain from adopting such an unflattering term (i.e. parasite singles). You wrote, "Some have even concluded that there is very little substance to Yamada's ideas apart from a catchy name and a lucrative publishing deal." Have you conducted or encountered any research relating to a similar trend occurring in the Republic of Ireland?
J. Sean Curtin: While I have not conducted any specific research in Ireland on this particular topic, I have looked at Ireland from a comparative perspective. In this regard Ireland appears to fit in quite well with many southern European countries such as Spain, Italy and Portugal. Kinship patterns and family related social networks are all quite similar in these countries (Social Trends Series #19). Furthermore, in this grouping there is a distinctive tendency for young adults to leave the family home at a much later stage than in other parts of Europe. While I have not read any specific Irish research on this trend, there is a fair amount of general research data produced by the European Union and the Luxembourg Income Study which shows that youth in Ireland, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece all leave the family home at a relatively late phase in their lives.
Michael Kavanagh: A new study published in November 2002 by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC - Professor Richard Berthoud) revealed that Irish people are likely to remain living at home far longer than their European counterparts. Half of the Irish men surveyed were still living at home at the age of 26. The corresponding ages in Spain and Italy were 28 and 30 respectively. One of the primary reasons put forward as to why this is the case was the spiralling property prices in Ireland. It has also been argued that higher property prices in Japan, Spain and Italy have acted as a deterrent for young people in leaving the family home. In your opinion to what degree is the affordability of property prices responsible for the later departure of young adults from the family home?
J. Sean Curtin: While the ever rising cost of property is certainly a deterrent for leaving the family home, I think it is just one factor in a highly complex equation. Depending on the country, high youth unemployment rates, extended periods of education, smaller families and changing concepts about the parent-child relationship are also other significant factors that strongly influence this trend. With specific regard to Japan, the youth unemployment figures clearly illustrate this point. The March 2003 unemployment statistics show that youth unemployment stands at an all time record high of 13.2%. If you are out of work and have no money, you cannot even contemplate purchasing a property and have little choice but to live at home. In Spain, youth unemployment is also high, which forces many young people to rely on their parents for accommodation. Declining fertility rates in most industrially advanced countries have already led to smaller family sizes, which enable offspring to remain in the family home for longer than in previous generations. One or two-children families mean that many parents now have the financial capability to support their adult offspring at home. These resources were not available when family sizes were much larger. In previous generations, the average number of children per family was just too high, meaning that children had to rapidly become financially independent as household income could not support them.
Michael Kavanagh: Ireland has one of the highest education participation rates in the world. 3rd level education has been free in Ireland for approximately 20 years. This participation rate has been increasing consistently since the 1960s. According to the Department of Education, 19,000 people enrolled in third level education in 1965/66. By 2000/01 this figure had risen to 120,000 people and is expected to reach 127,000 by 2005/06. The figures clearly show that more and more people are extending the time they spend in education, which is said to be a benefit afforded to countries that had been generating wealth. Ireland is clearly one of these countries and students at 3rd level are availing themselves of this wealth. In your opinion to what degree is availability of education responsible for the later departure of young adults from the family home given that those in full time education generally cannot afford renting property particularly in a country like Ireland with higher property prices?
J. Sean Curtin: In this regard, I think some interesting parallels can be drawn between Ireland and Japan. Japan has also seen a huge increase in the number of those entering higher education, which most certainly influences decisions about leaving the parental home. While the accessibility of education is one element behind this trend in Ireland and Japan, there are many other reasons for the increase. One important factor seen in nearly every industrially advanced country is the huge increase in the number of women in higher education. This has a lot to do with increased awareness about gender equality as well as smaller family sizes. Just like Ireland, traditional family sizes in Japan were large. Rapid economic development has witnessed a decline in the birthrate and meant that the majority of parents now have enough economic resources to invest equally in their offspring, regardless of gender. When families were large and financial resources were limited, parents tended to invest most in the education of their male offspring. This was in the belief that by doing so they would get the best return for their limited investment capability. Marriage, housekeeping and childrearing skills were seen as more important for girls than education. In recent decades, this way of thinking has changed in both Ireland and Japan. Consequently, we have seen a huge surge in the number of women at universities. Another factor is youth unemployment. A competitive jobs market leads parents to invest heavily in their child's education in order to give their offspring the best possible chance of securing future employment.
Michael Kavanagh: Inflation in Ireland is currently running at 3 times the European average. In 2002 Dublin was declared the second most expensive city in Europe. The Prediction for the Consumer Price Index (CPI) in 2003 is an average increase of 4.7%. With increases in the Irish standard of living, the Irish cost of living has also increased. How much of a deterrent do you feel the increased cost of living in Ireland and countries like Ireland has been for young people in leaving the family home?
J. Sean Curtin: I think the cost of living is a very significant factor in decisions about leaving home. This has also influenced the way parents view the timing of their children leaving home. The financial hurdles young people face in setting up an independent household in an industrially advanced country has made many parents much more willing to assist their children, even after they have graduated from college and obtained employment. Many parents realize that by allowing their adult offspring to remain in the family home for a few years, they will enable their children to build up a much better financial base for when they eventually leave. As the aim of most parents is to give their children the best possible financial start in life, adjusting to the prevailing economic conditions is a logical response.
Michael Kavanagh: The study published by the ESRC entitled "Diverse Europe" identifies a trend whereby young adults in southern European countries are living at home longer than those in northern European countries. Given that Ireland is keeping up with its southern European counterparts in terms of this trend, how do you think this will affect Irish society in the years ahead in areas such as (1) Birth rate, (2) Marriage rate and (3) Society in general?
J. Sean Curtin: By looking at how southern European countries and Japan deal with these issues, it is possible to form a reasonable idea of how the situation might unfold in Ireland. In Italy and Japan, leaving the family home and becoming independent at a later age is one of the key factors behind late marriage. Later marriage tends to lead to lower birthrates as fertility declines with age. This combined with increased life expectancy normally leads to the rapid greying of society, which itself creates another set of challenges such as declining pension levels, increasing the age of retirement and an overburdened healthcare system.
Firstly, on the point of low birthrates. Italy, Spain and Japan already have extremely low birthrates and this trend will have a huge long-term impact on their societies with regard to such matters as labour shortages, healthcare for the elderly and the level of pension premiums. However, the eventual outcome of a low birthrate will most likely depend on what policies a government adopts to deal with the issue. There are a variety of options available to policymakers, three of the most important of which are (i) increasing immigration to compensate for a declining population; (ii) introducing a comprehensive package of family-friendly work and tax policies to enable parents, particularly mothers, to participate more fully in the workforce; and (iii) raising the retirement age and increasing pension premiums. A combination of these policies has the potential to easy labour shortages, stabilize pension schemes and under certain conditions even increasing the birthrate. Japan has so far chosen to concentrate its efforts on introducing family-friendly work and tax policies and there is discussion about raising the pension age. Immigration levels are very low by international standards and at present Japan has no plans to increase them. As a liberal immigration policy is a key component for stabilizing a declining population, current population projections for Japan predict a rapid decline in population. The long-term impact on Ireland of Irish offspring delaying leaving home and starting a family will to some degree be determined by the policies the Irish government adopts towards the issue.
As for your second point about marriage rates, they may well stay about the same, but the age at which people get married will probably continue to rise. In Italy, delays in leaving the family home have already been identified as a key factor for late marriages, which in turn leads to lower fertility rates as people start families later in life than in previous generations. Even though fertility treatments are continually improving, the biological clock inside both men and women will probably mean that birthrates will continue to drop.
Michael Kavanagh: From your quotation above, you ponder the notion that the phrase "Parasite singles" used by Masahiro Yamada to describe the behaviour of a proportion of young Japanese adults is no more than a phrase coined for commercial purposes. This notion would appear to hold in light of the study published by the ESRC highlighting evidence that the behaviourisms in question have also been occurring outside Japan for some time. If this is in fact a trend occurring on a larger scale and not a problem unique to Japan, what can you see as being the major economic implications for a country such as Ireland exhibiting such population trends in areas such as (1) Pensions, (2) Consumer spending and (3) Savings.
J. Sean Curtin: As I point out in Part One of this series, the so called "Parasites Singles" phenomenon is not at all unique to Japan and is actually quite common in EU countries. What I object to is Yamada attempting to claim that this trend is unique to Japan and by giving it a catchy name sell his book and grab media attention. Furthermore, while the complex trend of young people leaving the family home much later than in previous generation has now become a prominent feature in most industrially advanced societies, I think the use of the term "parasite singles" to describe this trend in Japan is unfair to Japanese young people. Young people and their families are merely responding to socio-economic changes and I certainly do not think these young people are being parasitic. History clearly demonstrates that family patterns have constantly changed as they adapt to the prevailing economic conditions in society at any given time.
With regard to what kind of future economic impact prolonged delays in offspring quitting the parental home will have on Ireland, the final outcome will depend on what kind policies Ireland itself adopts to deal with the population trends that arise from this phenomenon. As Ireland is rapidly becoming a nation at the forefront of high-tech innovation, a declining population may not have such a big impact on the economy. Some people even argue that a smaller population is beneficial for the environment. The only thing that can be said for certain is that the basic structure of Irish society will have to adapt to the new realities of having more elderly people in the population than young. This will most definitely alter the underlying dynamics of society itself. In the past European society has undergone even more sudden and massive population changes, such as at the time of the Great Plague. Society has always been able to adapt and I suspect both Ireland and Japan will find innovative ways to cope with having fewer young people in their populations.
Other articles in the Youth Trends in Japan Series
Youth Trends in Japan: Part One – "Parasite Singles" in the International Context
Social Trends: Series #38, GLOCOM Platform, 26 May 2003
The Declining Birthrate in Japan: Part Three – Italy-Japan Comparisons
J. Sean Curtin, Richard J. Samuels and William T. Stonehill, Social Trends: Series #19, GLOCOM Platform, 11 December 2002
Richard Berthoud & Maria Lacavou, Diverse Europe, University of Essex and Economic Social Research Council, November 2002: