A quarter of Japanese men and women in the age group 18-39 are virgins. To be precise they have had no heterosexual sex. The Japanese government has regular surveys of this age group and monitors their lifestyles. There is a group of young adults, particularly men, who profess to have no interest in looking for sex and romantic relationships. The have been nicknamed "herbivores". 21.4% of women and 25.1% of men are classified as “herbivores”. It is part of the fertility problem in Japan. Bobby Duffy in his book, Generations, suggests that this is more complex than a single generation losing interest in sex.
These are long run trends not an “aberration” amongst a particular group of young. Surveys of sexual activity around the world show declines in the frequency of sex. Analysis shows that it is not the young who are to blame. The largest declines are actually among married people and those in early middle age.
Growing Up More Slowly
Even in 1992 Japan, 20% of men and 22% of women were virgins. The numbers have increased but they were already high. Although Japan is an outlier there are similar trends throughout the world. Surveys of “number of sexual partners in the past year” show generational differences. Sexual activity is starting later with each successive cohort. The percentage of any group of US adults saying they “have had no sexual partner in the past year” starts high when they are young. It then declines as people age and become sexually active.
However it also has declined across generations. Generation X followed the “Baby Boomers”. 12% of the youngest group of that generation said they had no sexual partner in the past year. The comparable number for successive generations increased. For the Millennials of the same age, it was 21% and Gen Z it was 34%. Sexual activity is being delayed not cancelled. When the Millennials reached their late thirties, their sexual activity had increased. It was identical to Generation X, the cohort that preceded them, at that age. Of course fertility drops with age.
Using Duffy’s terminology there is also a period effect. It is not due to the differences between generations. It is not due to changes in our attitudes as we age and our life changes. It is simply due to the 2008 economic crisis. For the Millennials, this lead to the stagnation of incomes. At the same time there were stricter mortgage lending rules. House prices continued to sky rocket. They were condemned to spend more of their income on rental and educational loans. Many could not afford to leave home.
For this generation, when they were born has shaped their home ownership prospects. In the UK by the time the Baby Boomers reached their late twenties two thirds owned their own homes. This fell to 59% for Generation X at the same age. When the Millennials reached their late twenties around 2015, home ownership had fallen to just over a third.
Economic status is one of the causes of the issues in Japan. The groups who choose not to look for a sexual or romantic relationship have lower education and income levels. They claim not to be able to find the right partner and not to be able to afford to marry.
If you cannot buy, you rent or live at home. Living with ones parents varies hugely across countries. Italy is famous for having at least half of young Italians between 25 and 34 living at home. This compares to only 5% in Norway. No matter the starting point, the numbers are going up. In the US 18% of 27 year olds in 1999 lived at home. Of the 27 year olds in 2014 31% were at home. They are moving out but later. By the time the same group was 30 in 2017 only 16% were still at home. The numbers for the UK are very similar. Leaving home has been delayed.
Being a Single
In Japan at the moment there are 2.2m single women and 1.7m single men in the 18-39 age group. They are not married and not in a relationship outside of marriage. The percentage of women who are “single” has increased from 27.4% in 1992 to 40.7% in 2015. For men it has gone from 40.3% to 50.8%. Marriages have declined. The number of women married has dropped from 57.7% in 1992 to only 42.9% in 2015.
Across all age groups the percentage of singles is higher in Japan than almost anywhere else. In Japan, in the youngest 18-24 age group 65.6% of women are single. The comparable number for the UK is 41.5%. At the other end of the age group, of Japanese women 35-39, 24.5% are still single versus 14.0% in the UK. 32.5% of men in that 35-39 age group in Japan are single compared to 22% in the USA. One in four Japanese women and one in three men in their thirties were single. Living together in the thirties becomes increasingly uncommon.
Around the world Governments are working to encourage children They focus on family tax breaks, childcare and paternity leave. The Japanese data suggests that it may be too late by then. Japanese fertility rates are a level of 1.36 children per female. The Japanese Government too has policies to try to increase this. The are offering the usual economic support for families. On top of that they have introduced dating agencies and adult sex education classes for the under 40’s. They have recognized cultural changes in attitudes to marriage and sex, which precede any thought of children.
The Japanese Market today, the rest of the World tomorrow….
The combined impact of declining fertility and increasing longevity is transforming markets. The Japanese data suggests a more structural change in the nature of Society. When faced with a life of 100 years it is not surprising that people are growing up more slowly. As Laura Carstensen said when talking about increasing longevity; "We tacked all these extra years on at the end and only old age got longer”.
The jury is out on whether this is a period economic effect or a long run trend. Japan may be an outlier, but the underlying trends are the same around the world. There will be more “singles”. They will stay at home longer but eventually will leave.
Our current expectations about life are social constructions. We have invented adolescence, retirement and even the idea of the birthday. We expect to go through education, work and then retire. Sometime in the 1950’s and 60’s we came to believe in the nuclear family of mother, father and 2.4 children. As Duffy points out, for five thousand years no such family had existed. It does not exist today. With an expected lifespan of 100 we are going to need to construct some new models. Those models will influence what consumer markets look like in the future.