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Opinion

Men must change to reverse Japan's rapidly declining birthrate

At work and at home, it is crucial for men to do their share

| Japan
Businessmen walk in Tokyo's Marunouchi business district: the one thing we must change is the male mindset.   © Reuters

Nobuko Kobayashi is a partner with EY Strategy and Consulting Co., Ltd., Strategy and Transactions -- EY-Parthenon.

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan braced itself for the devastation of its elderly population. Yet, the biggest demographic blow arrived not in the form of more people dying but fewer people being born.

Extrapolating the latest government statistics from January to March, Japan can expect 80,000 fewer babies this year -- a 9.2% fall in the birthrate compared to 2020 -- while COVID-19 has so far claimed the lives of fewer than 13,000 people.

Not only is Japan graying rapidly, but its population is also shrinking at an alarming speed. If we believe that a stable and well-balanced population is essential to a nation's sustainability, then we must act fast to counteract this demographic crisis. To put it simply: We need more couples to want to have babies.

The only way to move the needle in the right direction is to change the behavior of men, both at work and at home. Women can help, too, by working with men.

A low birthrate is not unique to Japan among the world's developed economies. The reasons behind falling birthrates are complex, involving feelings about the future, the desire to couple with a long-term partner, and how much time and money people have at their disposal.

The good news for Japan is that there is at least the desire to have more babies. In fact, statistics suggest that Japanese couples are holding back.

The last time the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research asked, back in 2015, the average number of children that Japanese couples said they wanted was 2.32, compared to the actual number of children per couple of 1.94.

Closing that gap, between how many children couples say they want and how many they are actually having, is the key to combating Japan's long-term population decline, which has now been acutely aggravated by the pandemic.

After former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's womenomics policy, which attempted to elevate the status of working women, failed to lift the birthrate, does encouraging women to focus on building their careers also lead them to delay having babies?

The truth is that achieving the twin objectives of achieving professional gender equality and helping couples have the number of children they actually want is not such a difficult problem. To solve it, the one thing we must change is the male mindset.

In recent years, governments have largely left it up to women to advance the cause of gender equality, as the name "womenomics" plainly suggests. But not enough is being asked of men.

While there are currently twice as many double-income households as there are single-income households, Japanese women spend double the amount of time on housework and child care as their husbands. At the same time, Japan's culture of overwork at the office has persisted.

While Japanese women have leaned in to a world designed by and for men, most men have done little -- if anything -- to change. Yet the empowerment of women must not rely solely on women, and men -- the quiet passengers of womenomics -- must change not just for their own good but for their partners too.

With the pandemic knocking down so many long-standing Japanese work customs, managers can finally dispense with the needless face-time culture, instill meritocracy and make the workplace more people-friendly by things such as capping the hours people spend at work without lowering productivity.

Take Yoshihisa Aono, the celebrated founder and CEO of cloud service company Cybozu, which turned over 13 billion yen ($120 million) last year, who recently told Nikkei that he routinely takes his three kids to school in the morning and then focuses on work until 6:30 p.m. sharp. Evenings are reserved for family.

Yoshihisa Aono, founder and CEO of Cybozu, pictured on Mar. 10: he takes his three kids to school in the morning and then focuses on work until 6:30 p.m. sharp. (Photo by Tetsuya Kitayama)

When they get home, Japanese men need to lean in for a change and start performing more tasks traditionally dismissed as "women's work."

While governments deserve credit for helping to destigmatize depression and contributing to a reversal of the suicide rate from 2010 to 2019, others campaigns, like the Premium Friday campaign encouraging workers to take off early on the fourth Friday each of month, have flopped badly.

A campaign encouraging husbands and fathers to chip in more for housework and child care would surely win the support of women. The end goal is not to reverse the clock on gender equality but enable Japanese women to have more fulfilling careers and family lives. And that includes having babies before it is too late, without sacrificing your career. This will happen only if men are willing to change.

COVID's biggest impact on Japan so far is that, compared with the pre-pandemic forecast, it has drastically accelerated the declining birthrate.

The 780,000 children expected to be born this year in Japan is equivalent to the pre-COVID estimates predicted for the year 2035, forwarding the clock to Japan becoming a childless dystopia. A quiet crisis surrounds us -- it is now or never to snap out of the male coma of inaction.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the global EY organization or its member companies.

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