OK, maybe that's a rather sweeping title, but it is the idea that comes to mind when contemplating several recent articles simultaneously...
First, on the China front, we have this story in the People's Daily today: "Millions of young people battling depression, insecure about future":
More than 30 million young people are battling depression and fighting behavioral problems, experts said during a youth development forum in Beijing Sunday.
The Xinhua News Agency reported that many youngsters are having difficulty getting along with parents and are pessimistic about their future.
The report, citing a survey conducted by the China Population Communication Center, said 40 percent of university students do not have a plan for the future, while 84 percent of high school students feel depressed and stressed. Nearly 50 percent of primary school students said they feel anger and shame after their parents and teachers express negative opinions of them.
The survey found that most university students said they share a large gap with their parents, and that their parents do not understand them.
The report said change in social structure and industrialization has affected family life significantly, which exert pressure on adolescents....
Sounds rather familiar: a fairly standard anomie born of high speed modernization, something found in other societies at other times, though the ultra-competitive environment in China these days does make it harder on young people there, even college graduates. The stress and breakdown of parent-child bonds would sadden a modern-day Confucian. As would this: "Home alone, China's elderly need better care and support":
Statistics from the Ministry of Civil Affairs showed that there were 167 million people over the age of 60 in China at the end of 2009, accounting for 12.5 percent of the population. That proportion exceeds the figure of 10 percent recommended by the United Nations.
Nearly half of these older people are living in "empty nests", a term that describes the emerging social situation in which the elderly are forced to live alone as their children live and work in other cities.
As the proportion of the elderly in China's population increases, more attention needs to be given to what extra support older people need.
One problem is that many older people cannot afford the fees charged by many nursing homes and are forced to continue living alone.
Again, not very surprising here, and not very Confucian. But we shouldn't expect China to be any more Confucian, really, than any other modern or modernizing place. A rapidly modernizing society is characterized by social mobility: young people leave home for jobs, they try to move up the economic and social ladder, they have to commit more time to their own careers and children, and elderly parents are left alone. Now, some elderly parents might like this, to be unencumbered by the intrusions of the younger generations. But the costs in isolation and loneliness and alienation are obvious.
We see the same things in Japan. A couple of months ago there were stories (here and here) about how government record-keepers had lost track of tens of thousands of elderly Japanese, which lead to some unsettling questions:
For the moment, there are no clear answers about what happened to most of the missing centenarians. Is the country witnessing the results of pension fraud on a large scale, or, as most officials maintain, was most of the problem a result of sloppy record keeping? Or was the whole sordid affair, as the gloomiest commentators here are saying, a reflection of disintegrating family ties, as an indifferent younger generation lets its elders drift away into obscurity?
“This is a type of abandonment, through disinterest,” said Hiroshi Takahashi, a professor at the International University of Health and Welfare in Tokyo. “Now we see the reality of aging in a more urbanized society where communal bonds are deteriorating.”
Disintegrating family ties - this is not particular to China or Japan or any other place. It is common everywhere. It is what modernization does...
But an intriguing response to the atomizing flux of modernity is emerging in Japan: grass-eating men. Generally, young people are not marrying and having children at rates they did in the past. Indeed:
It came as a shock to demographers when the 2005 census showed that the number of deaths exceeded that of births for the first time: the population had started to shrink two years ahead of schedule. The 2010 census results are currently being processed and preliminary results are due in February 2011.
Although this trend has been underway for a long time, it has been exacerbated by the secular decline of the Japanese economy. After the boom-time eighties, the "lost decade" of the 1990s brought a certain cultural malaise, one that has persisted in the new recessive economic environment of recent years:
It does not help that unemployment is high and incomes are low among the young—especially among young men, who increasingly give up even looking for jobs. One of Japan’s most prominent sociologists, Masahiro Yamada of Chuo University, thinks that most young Japanese women still want to be housewives, but are struggling to find a breadwinner who earns enough to support them. He points out that half the young people of prime marrying age—20-34—still live with their parents. In the 1990s he coined the term “parasite singles” to describe them. They seemed to be getting a good deal, saving money on rent and spending it on foreign travel and luxury goods instead. If they wanted privacy, they could always go to one of Japan’s ubiquitous love hotels.
And some young men, enough to coin a new term: soushoku danshi - something like "grass eating boys" - refuse to engage in competitive social and economic activities. They are simply opting out:
Yoto Hosho, a 22-year-old college dropout who considers himself and most of his friends herbivores, believes the term describes a diverse group of men who have no desire to live up to traditional social expectations in their relationships with women, their jobs, or anything else. "We don't care at all what people think about how we live," he says....
...Fukasawa contends that while some grass-eating men may be gay, many are not. Nor are they metrosexuals. Rather, their behavior reflects a rejection of both the traditional Japanese definition of masculinity and what she calls the West's "commercialization" of relationships, under which men needed to be macho and purchase products to win a woman's affection....
This has a vaguely Daoist ring to it. Would Zhuangzi be a grass eater if he were in Japan today? Did he aspire to grass-eating in his own day? His image of Liezi rather suggests it:
At this, Liezi realized he hadn't even begun to understand Dao, so he returned home and didn't leave for three years. He cooked for his wife, and fed the pigs as though he were feeding people. Human pursuits meant nothing to him. He whittled and polished himself back to utter simplicity: a body standing alone like a clump of earth. Taking this refuge in the midst of all confusion, he kept himself whole to the end...(111)
I know, I know, Liezi has a wife and contemporary Japanese grass-eaters are single. But notice that line: "Human pursuits meant nothing to him." That seems to capture something of the soushoku danshi ethos, I think. And maybe the picture Zhuangzi paints is a kind of basic subsistence, which in his day required spouse, a situation that now, under conditions of modernity, can be attained in even greater social isolation. Who needs a spouse to cook for you (or to cook for) if your elderly mother (whose life span is longer than the average in Zhuangzi's time) will do it for you, or you can run out to a local take-out joint?
So, maybe there are Daoist-like responses to the stresses of modernity in Japan. And, who knows, as has generally been the case for the past 140 years or so, perhaps Japan's experience of modernization will manifest itself, in similar though somewhat revised form, in China.....