Japan is experiencing a vicious cycle of low fertility and low spending.

This year, there were fewer births than ever recorded in the 118 years Japan has collected data. The trend has social scientists worried for the financial and social future of the country.

Since 1899, when Japan began collecting data on how many babies are born each year, the total number of newborns has never fallen below 950,000.

Until 2017

New data from Japan’s health ministry suggests that by the end of this year, only 941,000 babies will have been born – a dip of 40,000 since 2016. The death count, meanwhile, is around 1.34 million, up 3% from 2016.

Japan’s fertility crisis has been many decades in the making. Older generations are starting to die off, but people in younger generations aren’t starting families behind them. Japan’s fertility rate is among the lowest in the world, at just 1.4 births per woman.

Sociologists have found that populations stay steady when a country has at least 2.1 births per woman. Beneath that threshold, countries can expect to see their populations decline, which Japan has.

Mary Brinton, a Harvard sociologist, has called the fertility crisis “death to the family.”

Experts say that situation is causing consumer spending, and the economy as a whole, to suffer. Among some economists, the vicious cycle is known as a “demographic time bomb.”

Other countries face similar problems, including the US, Denmark, China, and Singapore – with fertility rates of 1.87, 1.73, 1.6, and 0.81, respectively.

A 2016 study conducted by a Japanese research firm found that nearly 70% of unmarried Japanese men and 60% of unmarried Japanese women weren’t in relationships, though most people claim they do want to get married eventually.

Japan has gone to great lengths to boost its fertility rate – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has set a goal of 1.8 births per woman by 2025.

For instance, the country is letting men play with dolls to get accustomed to fatherhood. And the government is organizing speed-dating events to help young people meet.

“We will continue to put efforts into support for child-rearing,” welfare minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki told The Japan Times in 2016.

Experts like Brinton, however, argue that the only lasting solution will require Japan to rethink its corporate structure to accommodate family planning.

In the meantime, the demographic time bomb has forced Japan to recognize the importance of innovation more than ever – specifically, with robotics technology. Without strapping young humans to do the work, machines may be the next best thing.

Via Business Insider