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Millennium Post

A novel solution

A novel solution
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In 2019, Japan recorded 864,000 births for the year, a record low. In fact, this was the first time the nation recorded less than one million births for a year since they started keeping records more than a century ago. Coming at the tail-end of several years of failed efforts by the Japanese Government to reverse the accelerating decline in birthrate, the number has created serious panic for the fate of the rapidly greying nation of Japan. The long-running Abe administration referred to the situation as a 'national crisis'. The popular narrative for the causes of this crisis often lays the blame on the Japanese youth simply not having enough sex or their women increasingly electing a career path over raising a family. It goes without saying that this has largely been seen as an over-generalised and problematic narrative that does nothing to address the situation or understand it. Several studies have shown that a change in lifestyles and social values has indeed lead to more people choosing to have children later in life or not at all. But this is not entirely unique to Japan.

In the 1990s, as the asset bubble that had accelerated the Japanese economy forward at breakneck speeds finally burst, a generation of Japanese found themselves out in the cold. Stable, reliable income was no longer a guarantee. While the effects of this bubble bursting were mitigated over time, irregular and low paying jobs did come to account for nearly 40 per cent of the workforce in recent times. As expected, such employment shift would have significant social impacts. Irregular employment has played a major role in dissuading Japanese youth from settling down because they know they can't afford it. This is particularly the case for Japanese men as Japan is, by an large, traditional in its expectation of assigning men as the sole or at the very least, primary breadwinner of the family. Japan has been noted multiple times as one of the worst developed nations for working mothers and figures have shown that 70 per cent of Japanese women actually stop working after having their first child with men playing a limited role in childcare and housework as compared to other developed nations. Regardless of the causes, Japan's rapidly declining birthrate has forced the government into taking a far more active role in the process of matchmaking for its people.

While government matchmaking is not new and was promoted by regional governments under Abe, new PM Suga has gone even further. The Japanese Government has announced its intent to allocate 2 billion yen for the purpose of introducing AI-based matchmaking systems in Japan. Local media reports have stated that this additional expenditure will allow for the development of more advanced systems that can compute more factors like hobbies and values in addition to existing ones like age and income. Through this measure, Japan hopes to match millions of young Japanese to their technically-perfect 'soulmates', an important step in the overall plan to prevent Japan's population from halving by the end of the century. Naturally, there are those who have pointed out that youth who are not interested in dating are not likely to avail matchmaking. AI matchmaking does not break the chain between low-income levels and loss of interest in romantic relationships. Many experts instead say that Japan would be better served by making childcare cheaper and expanding support for working mothers in Japan. The Abe government had sought to address these shortfalls in a limited way.

While Japan may have its own unique context, the problem of falling birth rates is not unique to Japan. Recent studies have shown that falling birth rates worldwide would see the population of most nations shrink by the end of the century. In a very real way, this falling birth rate is a sign of success in some regards. With greater access to education and contraception, women have more choice now to lead lives while having fewer or no children. But it cannot be denied that there are serious drawbacks to this decline, The dynamics of a world where the old outnumber the young can scarcely be imagined with a whole host of major social upheavals that will likely be the result of this inverted age structure. There is a need to address this decline but without in any way harming the progress on women's rights. A fundamental rethink of the way our society functions may be required, particularly so in the current time as the pandemic threatens to further derail population growth across the world.

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