A Growing Demographic: The Isolated and Non-employed


Despite indications that Japan may finally be heading for an economic recovery, one serious malady continues to afflict the country: a rapidly increasing population of unmarried and unemployed people aged 20 to 59. Professor Genda Yūji of the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science, who introduced the concept of the “Solitary Non-Employed Person,” sounds the alarm.

Amid the Upturn, A Hidden Crisis

In 2013, Japan’s economic outlook began to brighten at last. The Nikkei Average ended the year at its highest level in six years, and there are signs that the economy may finally be emerging from the slump brought on by the global recession and made worse by the Great East Japan Earthquake and its aftermath.

The biggest factor behind the economic recovery is the cheaper yen, following unprecedented steps taken by the Bank of Japan to ease the nation’s monetary supply following the election of Abe Shinzō as prime minister. Business performance has improved, especially among export-oriented firms, and it looks as though the longstanding deflationary trend of recent years is finally being checked. Consumer prices have gradually begun to rise as well.

To cap it all, Tokyo won the race to host the 2020 summer Olympics—a piece of good news that has put a spring in people’s step throughout the country. To ensure the success of that event, public spending will continue to increase for some time. If current trends continue and foreign investors continue to buy Japanese stocks and sell yen at a profit, Japan’s economy may continue to show sustainable growth.

The way ahead, however, remains unpredictable. During the economic boom of the late 1980s, few people heeded warnings that the prosperity of the times amounted to little more than a speculative bubble. The price of that boom, and the inevitable bust that ended it, was two decades of continuous economic stagnation. The current recovery may be just another bubble. We won’t know until it’s too late.

Meanwhile, in the shadows of the economic resurgence, a different crisis for Japanese society is steadily getting worse. Growing numbers of people now fall into a category I have labeled “Solitary Non-Employed Person,” or SNEP. The use of this term, which was selected as one of the 50 major buzzwords of 2013, is becoming alarmingly widespread.

Doubling over a Decade

The term “SNEP” is not yet well known outside Japan. It refers to a person aged between 20 and 59 who is single, unemployed, and spends the bulk of his or her time either entirely alone or in the company of no one other than family. This description will no doubt remind many readers of the hikikomori, a term widely used in Japan since the 1990s to describe someone who has remained shut up at home for six months or longer. Although various factors have been put forward to explain individual cases, the hikikomori phenomenon as a whole continues to elude satisfactory analysis.

Thanks to a large-scale statistical study conducted by the Japanese government every five years since 1976, it is possible to present a detailed explanation of the SNEP phenomenon. The Survey on Time Use and Leisure Activities asks 200,000 people from all over Japan to report on their activities over a 48-hour period divided into 15-minute increments. In addition to providing details concerning meals, sleep, study, and work, respondents are also asked about the people they spend time with. This information in particular has enabled us to shed light on the nature of the SNEP phenomenon.

In 2001, some 850,000 people nationwide fitted the description as SNEPs. By 2011 the SNEP population had nearly doubled, to 1.62 million. Another striking phenomenon in recent years has been the growing number of younger people who have spent their entire working lives since leaving school as nonpermanent employees in a succession of short-lived and often poorly paid jobs: the so-called freeters. Government statistics suggest that there are around 1.76 million freeters in Japan today. With the total percentage of people in nonpermanent positions rising all the time, the number of SNEPs—for whom even temporary, part-time employment is out of reach—has risen to nearly the same level as that of the freeters.

Leading the World in the Solitary Non-Employed

A foreign observer hearing this might be tempted to regard Japan as an odd kind of place indeed, lumbered with an unusually large population of young people living isolated lives without employment. But whether Japan’s percentage of SNEPs is actually higher than other countries is unknown, for the simple reason that no other country so far has paid attention to the phenomenon. It’s worth noting that Japan, the first to focus on the issue, has not shied away from its seriousness.

Many countries around the world carry out regular and detailed research similar to the Survey on Time Use and Leisure Activities in an attempt to find out exactly how citizens spend their time over the course of a single day. The findings of these studies may make it possible to illuminate the extent of similar SNEP phenomena in other countries. Isolation arises from conditions that afford very limited opportunities for interaction. These conditions are common in many countries, given the intense global competition and steadily mounting fiscal deficits around the world. I expect that in the future we will see the SNEP phenomenon become a growing problem not only in Japan but around the world. We should start by examining the data in order to find out the current situation in each country.

Isolated, Even from the Internet

As a first step, we should address the situation of SNEPs in Japan. Until the early years of the new millennium, a set of fairly well-defined attributes identified those unemployed people who were most at risk of descending into SNEP status. Men were more likely than women to become socially isolated if they lost their jobs. People with some higher education faced a comparatively lower risk. Unemployed people in their twenties tended to stay in relatively close contact with friends from school, becoming particularly susceptible to sudden social isolation in their thirties.

In the course of the past 15 years or so, however, the situation has been transformed. Women and university graduates now make up a rapidly increasing proportion of the SNEP population. There has been a major increase in the SNEP phenomenon among younger unemployed people. Regardless of gender, education level, or age, there is a growing tendency for virtually anyone who is unemployed to become socially isolated. Isolation has become a hallmark of being unemployed in Japan.

When the SNEP phenomenon was first identified, some observers suggested that the tendency was exacerbated by the Internet. Increasingly, they argued, people were able to take care of their needs by using their computers or phones, without the need for human contact. Some believed that apparently isolated people were devoting time that might otherwise have been spent socializing on online gaming, for example.

As we now know, that is not what was happening at all. Statistics indicate that SNEPs tend to use the Internet less than other groups, and relatively small numbers enjoy online gaming. There is little to suggest that the Internet has caused any increase in the SNEP population. People who are isolated tend to lose their interest in society. This makes them less likely to spend time online and use the Internet as a source of information.

Local Communities Try to Break the Cycle

What kind of lives do SNEPs lead, without work and with only minimal human contact? Three out of four live with parents or other relatives. It’s worth noting that those who live with family members are less likely to seek employment and more likely to have given up on work than those who live alone.

Many of the parents of SNEPs are in their seventies or older and are living on pensions. Many SNEPs who are currently surviving on their parents’ savings or pensions will find their own lives unsustainable after their parents die. If Japan, whose citizens are increasingly relying on public assistance, cannot halt the growth of its SNEP population, its problematic fiscal deficits will only get worse.

How to check the SNEP problem before it gets out of hand? Efforts by the town of Fujisato in Akita Prefecture may offer a clue. Fujisato is located at the gateway to the Shirakami mountain range, recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site. Fujisato is one of the most depopulated and rapidly aging communities in Akita Prefecture. Social welfare specialists working in the community have discovered that the most vexing problem for elderly residents is not their own health or living conditions. More than anything else, they are worried about the sons and daughters who have shut themselves up at home and surrendered to unemployment and social isolation.

After many ups and downs, and a lot of hard work by these welfare experts, many of these would-be SNEPs are now beginning to play a vital role in supporting the town’s elderly population. Among other things, they provide transportation to enable older people to go shopping. They are also earning a regular income making a special kind of quiche containing maitake mushrooms—a local delicacy—and marketing their product nationwide. In a region facing a labor shortage, they are helping to fulfill the need for workers and supporting the community.

The key to overcoming isolation may lie in the community’s expectations and securing its trust.

(Originally written in Japanese on January 14, 2014.)

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