By examining two unique services in Japan I will highlight the unexpected social and economic impacts of a long-lived population and the new struggles it produces. These come in the form of a booming corpse disposal and home renovation industry for the bodies of the elderly who die unnoticed and a virtual smart home assistant to play the role of someone waiting at home for you. Just what has brought people to be so lonely to be able to fade away en masse unnoticed and pursue alternative forms of social connection?
Despite world-shaping advancements in communications technology allowing anyone to speak with anyone, anywhere, at any time, many in the world still struggle to find the sense of human connection we crave. Loneliness is a global issue with large swathes of populations reporting chronic feelings of isolation and poor social connections. It is such an issue Britain saw to the creation of a Minister for Loneliness to address studies reporting that of the island nation’s 66 million people, 9 million reported recurring or constant loneliness. The burden of loneliness is a penetrating weight that erodes one’s productivity and health. This silent and private weight, when amplified by the millions who suffer from it, directly translates into lost national productivity and growth. At its height, loneliness kills.
In Japan, lonely deaths have become a multi-billion dollar industry. With no surviving family or having long lost touch with family members, some 30,000 elderly Japanese die each year without notice. Sometimes years can pass before people realize their neighbor has died. The business of removing the dead and cleaning their often putrid conditions (the result of declining health, depression, and lack of family available to assist or money to hire a caretaker) is a 8,000-firm association with an annual revenue of nearly $5 billion. As lonely deaths continue to increase the association expects to see its membership double to 16,000 to meet demand. A secondary effect of these deaths has been the rapid growth in the second-hand good industry, which has been adding billions in revenue with the large influx of electronics, clothes, and other leftovers collected during these renovations.
Driving these lonely deaths are a mixture of the natural longevity of the Japanese people and a harrowing relationship between economic burdens and birth rates leading to Japan’s age group distribution growing increasingly top heavy. Japan’s famously demanding work environments filled with long hours offers limited breathing room and at its worst has led to enough deaths to coin the sad term, “death by overwork”. For many there is limited time to socialize with friends outside of work, let alone engage in the often long-term and sometimes expensive investment that is dating. Many young and middle aged folk have simply given up considering marriage and family creation as a viable option. The fact that many of these working age people are also supporting their elderly parents amidst stretched thin welfare services further hampers family creation and the funds needed for it. Those without such connections or support instead find themselves in the hands of the body removal services. Without a change in direction, Japan is looking at a drastic outcome. Analysts say they expect 35% of the Japanese population will be over 65. With expectations of hitting 40% in 2060. If reduced birth and marriage rates continue there may be as much as 34% decrease in population by the end of the century.
Thus, once these workers eventually retire, they have lived much of their lives without meaningful connections, live far apart from their similarly retired co-workers, and find themselves all alone. The rest of the nation too busy to attend to them and themselves too unfamiliar with community engagement to know how to reach out to others. And with such a large portion of the nation needing welfare, government investment in areas of growth are being hampered. Thus, further entrenching current trends of economic stagnation and decline. Not all shall become lonely dead, but by the corpse removal industry’s estimates, a nevertheless tragic number of them will indeed meet that fate.
Working age Japanese are not wholly recoiling from social interaction though. There is still a deep-rooted need for a sense of connection and acceptance. Only with such busy lives and lacking the emotional energy needed for a relationship, many seek out something that can provide the benefits of meaningful connection without the effort. One such example is Gatebox, a smart home assistant that functions much like Amazon’s Alexa, able to connect and control all your Bluetooth/smart devices, only with the added benefit of a holographic anime-style girl of your choice projected inside itself to speak and emote with you. In the morning she will wake you up with a cute voice and exaggerated motions, start your coffee, and wish you good luck when you leave for work. Throughout the day she will text you like a close friend or a doting stay-at-home wife (depending on how you customize her). At night she will have the lights on and welcome you home, ultimately wishing you good night as she mimics going to bed herself. Many of the benefits of a person, without any of the obligations or pressures. Gatebox sold out soon after its announcement, at $2,700 a unit. There are now plans for lowering the price and expanding the language settings to address international demand.
In the face of what appears to be decades of stagnation from the booming growth of elderly dependents it does not seem like the Japanese will be finding increased amounts of time to connect, build families, or have children. This development of artificial partners is growing as Japanese men, and some women, increasingly pursue connection with virtual characters. We are in the early stages of seeing the impact of virtual partners on loneliness but clearly there is a dedicated consumer base eager for the next development in the industry. At the very least, it is doubtful the adoption of virtual partners will do anything to assist with the very low birth rate, help produce a healthy age distribution, or encourage economic recovery. These body removal, cleaning services, virtual partners are more akin to coping mechanisms in response to intense shocks, rather than anything resembling healthy development.
The lesson here is that loneliness can be good for some businesses, but it can also be indicative of deeply tragic national troubles that can be lurking behind some industries’ growth. For the sake of having healthy economies in the wake of global transitions, it is crucial to crucial that governments pay careful attention to seeing that their people are not left behind or forgotten.
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