A recent article in Slate (based on an article in the Guardian) reports that many young Japanese have lost interest in sex. The Japan Family Planning Association found that 45 percent of women aged 16-24, and 25 percent of the men, "were not interested in or despised sexual contact." A 2011 survey found that 61% of unmarried men and 49% of women aged 18-34 were not in a romantic relationship. A third of Japanese under 30, according to another study, have never dated at all.
What's the turnoff? Traditional gender roles. "Japan's punishing corporate world makes it almost impossible for women to combine a career and family," the Guardian journalist Abigail Haworth writes, "while children are unaffordable unless both parents work." Nearly 70 percent of Japanese women quit their jobs after their first child, forced out by long hours and hostility toward working mothers, not-so-affectionately called oniyome ("devil wives").
For men, the turnoff reflects the survival of the Salaryman, who works 100-hour-weeks, supported by a stay-at-home-wife. The Salaryman life is a turnoff because men don't believe they can achieve it in today's contracting economic climate. Haworth quotes one young man: "I don't earn a huge salary to go on dates and I don't want the responsibility of a woman hoping it might lead to marriage." He's keeping it simple as a "herbivore" or soshoku danshi (literally, "grass-eating men"), which he defines as, "a heterosexual man for whom relationships and sex are unimportant."
Stewart Friedman's just-published book,Baby Bust: New Choices for Men and Women in Work and Family, depicts our country hurtling down the same path. Friedman's book is based on his study of 1992 ("Gen X") and 2012 ("Millennials") Wharton undergraduates.
Friedman found that whereas Gen X women aspired to equality -- believing that two-career relationships work best when both partners are equally committed to their careers, both careers have equal priority, and neither partner has stereotypical views about family life -- Gen X men did not share this view. Instead, they assumed they would be breadwinners whose wives' careers would be secondary to their own.
The resulting searing disillusionment with men who talk the talk but do not walk the walk has left Millennial women skeptical that gender equality is a realistic possibility. So many more intend to opt out -- of having children. Whereas 91 percent of Gen X women said they intended to have kids or probably would, the same is true of only 55 percent of Millennial women.
It's not that they don't want children. Many who said they valued parenting as an important part of life plan to remain childless nonetheless. Not only are they skeptical that men will deliver on promises of family equality, Millennial women -- along with Millennial men --assume they will have to work brutally long hours. Gen-Xers foresaw a 58-hour workweek; Millennials foresee working 72-hour-weeks.
They don't see workplace flexibility as a realistic possibility: the ideal worker is still defined as someone who works full time, full force, for forty years without a break. In fact, the number of organizations offering anything other than full-time work is falling, and the flexibility stigma often affects those who work less than full time. As if in response, Millennials don't even believe they can take parental leave. Among Gen Xers who intended to take time off after the birth of their youngest child, 46 percent planned to take off six weeks or more, as contrasted with only 21 percent of Millennials. A big generation gap separates Gen X from Millennial women: whereas 69 percent of Gen X women expected to take time off after the birth of their youngest child, only 39 percent of Millennials do. One explained, "I mean, careers are changed within months."
Millennial men, like Millennial women, are on a baby strike: only 54 percent said they would or would probably have children, as compared with 87 percent of Gen X men. Like their counterparts in Japan, Millennial men are disillusioned about their ability to deliver on the breadwinner role. Millennial men are deeply worried about debt, especially those from less affluent families. They worry about unstable jobs and extreme hours. Unlike Gen Xers, Millennials don't assume women will work fewer hours than men, so the prospect of career support from wives seems uncertain. One suspects the new norm of involved fatherhood also plays a role: even if one dots all the "i's" and crosses all the "t's" of breadwinner perfection, the Salaryman may well be seen an inattentive father. Small wonder Millennial men are less happy than Millennial women.
For decades demographers have warned that family-hostile public policy leads to a baby bust of the sort that has become a national crisis in Japan. Friedman found that Millennials' intended childrearing falls below the replacement rate.
If U.S. does not want to follow Japan, where the demographic crisis is so serious that Japan "might eventually perish into extinction" (to quote the head of the Japan Family Planning Association), we'd better wake up and smell the coffee; it's burning. Designing today's workplace for the workforce of 1960 is not a winning macroeconomic strategy. The U.S. has the most family hostile public policy in the developed world. This just doesn't make macroeconomic sense.
As a work-family activist, I'm pessimistic. Yet as a gender theorist, I'm cheery. Because although the workplace isn't changing, gender roles are.
Japanese Millennial men gave their elders a coronary with their enthusiasm for a TV show called "Girly Men" (Otomen). The lead man was a tall martial arts champion whose Tough Guise was married with his sordid personal tastes for baking cakes, knitting clothes for his stuffed animals, and yearnings for sparkly pink. Japanese Millennials are unbending gender, mixing the masculine and the feminine in new ways.
So are many American Millennial men. If traditionalist men are glum, the only group Friedman found optimistic were egalitarian men. "If my future wife is doing something that she loves, then I want her to keep doing that and we'll make it work with the kids. I'm no expert in parenting, but I would assume that it's a lot of compromise," said one. What created such hydraulic conflict in many Gen X marriages was the mismatch between Gen X women's egalitarian gender ideology and the traditionalist expectations of Gen X men. But many Millennial men are willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
These guys exist. Sometimes the wife has the Big Job. In fact, during a recent panel I moderated, two audience members, one in tech and one in law, both announced that their husbands -- and the husbands of many of their female colleagues -- were primary caretakers in their families.
Sometimes, as is beginning to happen in academia, one career takes precedence for a while, and then the other does. Sometimes (as in my family), both partners decide they are not as gold-ring obsessed as they thought, and are content to build fulfilling careers off the Fastest-Track-Humanly-Possible.
Listen up, ladies. I'm not saying that everyone should have children -- far from it. But Millennial women who want children should lean in and have 'em, with men who will support their life goals. I understand why Millennial woman are skeptical. But when Millennial men say they believe in equality, some are for real.
So while prospects for redefining the ideal worker remain dim-to-nonexistent, here's the good news: the new sexy? Egalitarian men.
This blog post is part of a series produced by Stanford University's Michelle R. Clayman Institute for Gender Research, in conjunction with the latter's "Redesigning, Redefining Work" summit (November 7-8). The summit aims to redesign work to better align with the needs and composition of today's workforce, creating environments where workers and businesses thrive. For project information, click here.