Read an Excerpt
From the introduction
Maria Termina and her husband, Alberto, live in the northwestern city of Bra in the Piedmont region of Italy. The people of Bra are traditionalists who struggle to hold the modern world at arm’s length. Proud to be the hometown of Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food Movement, Bra hosts a biennial festival that celebrates artisanal cheeses from around the world. This tiny, leafy, quiet town of less than thirty thousand people swells to more than one hundred fifty thousand when the cheese connoisseurs show up in full force.
Alberto Termina, now sixty-seven, has lived in Bra almost all his life and worked for the same firm as an engineer for about forty of those years. His wife, Maria, is fifty-seven. They have three children, and Maria has been a stay-at-home mother, taking care of the family since her daughter, Laura, was born. The Terminas’ youngest child thirty-year- old Giovanni, has always lived with them and shows no signs of moving on. Giovanni graduated from the local high school but went no farther than that and is content with his steady blue-collar job as an electrician. He works on construction sites and picks up odd jobs on the side. It’s a living, barely. His wages are modest, the building trades go up and down and— in all honesty—his tastes in motorcycles are a bit extravagant. Though he is a skilled worker, Giovanni knows he could not enjoy himself with his friends as he does if he had to support him- self entirely on his own earnings. But since he pays no rent and can eat well at his mother’s table, his living expenses are low, leaving money for recreation.
Maria cooks for the family, cleans Giovanni’s room, and provides advice when he asks for it, leaving the not-so-young man free to enjoy his passions, especially that motorcycle. “The biggest expenses I have to take care of are for going out . . . during the weekend, in the night, going out for dinner . . . or travels and holidays,” Giovanni explains. Life is sweet.
Laura, the Terminas’ oldest daughter, has also recently returned to the nest. Newly divorced, she and her five-year-old daughter moved home so that Grandma Maria could watch over her granddaughter while Laura goes out to work every day as an accountant. Resting in the bosom of her parents was a balm to Laura after the collapse of her marriage, and for now she sees no reason to plan for a future on her own.
Of the three children born to Maria and Alberto, only Giorgio— Giovanni’s twin brother—lives on his own. Giorgio went further in school, completing a degree in economics at a local university and moving to Turin, where he works in marketing and statistics. He is the odd man out, not only in his family but among many of his family’s neighbors. More than a third of Italian men Giovanni’s age have never left home; the pattern of “delayed departure” has become the norm in Italy. This has made the country an international butt of jokes about bambini who will not cut the apron strings, the so-called “cult of mammismo” or mamma’s boys.
It is no laughing matter in Italy, particularly in government circles where the economic consequences are adding up. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi came out in support of the campaign against mammismo, having been elected on the promise of doing away with “that hide- bound aspects of Italian life which ‘inhibit dynamism and growth.’ " In January 2010, Italian cabinet minister Renato Brunetta proposed making it illegal for anyone over eighteen to live with his or her parents. He made the suggestion on a radio show where he also admitted that his mother made his bed until he was thirty, when he left home.
Why should government officials—including those whose own family lives are hardly worthy of admiration—care one way or the other where adult children make their home? The fact is that those private choices have serious public consequences. The longer these aging bambini live with their parents, the fewer new families are formed, and the evaporation of a whole generation of Italian children is knocking the social policies of the country for a loop. Plummeting fertility translates into fewer workers to fuel the retirement accounts in an aging society. The private calculations of families like the Terminas, who wonder how long they can support Giovanni, are becoming the public problem of prime ministers like the famously cavalier Berlusconi.
Are parents like Maria and Alberto listening to his advice? Surprisingly, no. Giovanni’s dependence once would have been seen as aberrant, even shocking. Maria and Alberto married in their early twenties, moved into their own home, and started a family almost immediately. Alberto’s job was steady—not uncommon in his generation of Italian men—and although it did not make him rich, he rarely worried about unemployment. It was enough for Alberto to occupy the position he was born for: paterfamilias.
It’s just as well that he wears this role so comfortably because it won’t be ending any time soon. Alberto and Maria must now stretch their retiree pensions to cover the expenses of their adult children. Giovanni gives his mother about two hundred dollars a month, and Laura buys clothes for her daughter. Otherwise, responsibility for household costs is pretty much what it was when Giovanni and Laura were growing up. The tab falls to the Bank of Mom and Dad.
Does this “delayed departure” worry thirty-year-old Giovanni? Not really. Expectations are changing, and there is little pressure on him to be more independent. His family isn’t urging him to marry, and he leans back in his chair and opines that “nobody asks you the reason [why you stay] at home with the parents at [my] age . . . nobody obliges me to move away.”
Is this sustainable? Will Giovanni and Laura be able to take care of their parents when they can no longer care for themselves? Mother Maria isn’t so sure. Her generation is taking care of both parents and adult children, but she sees young women like Laura, who have jobs and families, and wonders, “How can they support also grandparents?” Though that future may worry Maria, for now she is quite content that her grown children are under her protection. Why should they leave?
The Tokyo skyline looms neon across a vast region. A city of twelve million, Japan’s capital city is a mélange of the old and the new: high- technology firms and skyscrapers mix in with small businesses, one- story houses, and neighborhood shrines. Kumi Sato has at least one foot in both worlds. A widow now, she has spent what feels like a lifetime caring for her children. Actually, Kumi worked as a young woman, taking a job as an “office lady” for a large electronics firm in Akiba, a central business district known for its bright lights and bustling trade in cameras, computers, and all things digital. Once she married, though, at age twenty-three, she quit—as did virtually all Japanese women of her generation—to raise a family.
When her husband passed away, Kumi re-engaged with the world of commerce by taking over the family printing business. Her job opened a new window on the world of younger workers since her firm employs several twentysomething workers. She does not particularly admire what she sees. The work ethic she defines as integral to the Japanese DNA seems to have been shut off in the next generation. “Young people now are impatient,” she exclaims, “they don’t work over time . . . they change jobs often.”
Kumi’s twenty-eight-year-old son and youngest child, Akiro, lives with her and shows no signs of leaving the nest. In fact, Akiro thinks he would like to “make some move by age thirty-five” but until then plans to take advantage of not having to pay for food or rent and being able to spend everything he earns “for me”—on things like “CDs, DVDs, games, magazines, and books.” Akiro is not responsible for cooking or any other household chores, though he tries to do things “when I notice.” He graduated from a four-year university and since then has held a series of part-time jobs, working in a restaurant, at a gas station, and as a day laborer. He has no plans for further education, though he considers his current restaurant job no more than “a way to earn a living.” Akiro regularly looks at the help-wanted ads in the paper, but does not seem terribly motivated to make a change. Kumi’s friends, who also have children in their late twenties at home, urge her to instill a greater sense of responsibility in him. They ask, “What, you are not taking money from your children?”
She doesn’t really need the money. What she needs is to know that her son is going to grow up and assume the life of an adult. That metamorphosis was unavoidable in Kumi’s day. The post–World War II period in which she came of age was a time of widespread poverty and hardship in Japan. The boom years that followed were a blessed relief, but one that exacted an enormous commitment in work hours, particularly of Kumi’s husband. Discipline, dedication, willingness to spend virtually every waking hour at the office—these are the qualities she associates with manhood.
What happened to all that? To hear Kumi tell the story, something untoward is germinating in the next generation. It is as if a bunch of aliens who look and sound Japanese landed from some distant planet and took up residence among the natives. This is a defective generation that does not have the drive and selflessness that is the essence of modern Japan. But who raised this alien crowd? Here Kumi falters. She doesn’t think this state of affairs happened by accident. Society as a whole, in particular, parents like her, failed at their most fundamental task: grooming their successors. Her generation defaulted on a sacred responsibility to discipline its progeny. She is deeply troubled by her son’s failure to live up to the ideal of masculinity and adulthood she sees as normative. At the same time, Kumi is convinced that this default is, well, her fault. She coddled him; she enabled this retreat from maturity. She berates herself for being too weak to demand more of him, to kick him out in order to pull him into line. When he explains that he plans to stay right where he is until the age of thirty-five, she merely shakes her head and wonders at her own indulgence. It is not the Japanese way.
But isn’t Japan locked in the economic doldrums? Surely that is the reason Akiro cannot move on. The newspapers are full of stories of the “lost decade,” or is it two by now? The bubble economy burst in the 1990s, and the following stagnation swallowed the job market whole. Giant Japanese firms put a stop to the time-honored system of lifetime employment. Companies like Toyota and Honda, Mitsui and Sony, were forced to do the unthinkable: lay off thousands of workers. An article in the June 9, 1995, USA Today noted “Japanese executives, labor experts and academics [saying] out loud what many have been thinking: that guaranteed lifetime employment for Japanese workers is becoming a thing of the past.” A personnel manager at Dowa Mining said as much: “At our company, lifetime employment is gradually breaking apart."
Eight years later, in the September 7, 2001, Daily Yomiuri, the president of Matsushita proclaimed that his firm “did not need middle-aged and senior workers, whose minds were too slow to adapt to new information technology.” The article went on to posit that the then-current wave of layoffs of more than ten thousand employees at several major Japanese companies was an indication that the “thinking of Japanese management” had “undergone a radical change.” Starting in the early1990s, the international press was filled with articles shouting the news: the Japanese system was cracking. Oki Electric Industry said it would cut two thousand jobs—7 percent of its workforce—by March 1995; electronics giant Hitachi planned to furlough two thousand two hundred workers, at 90-percent pay, for four days; Sanyo Electric would eliminate two thousand of its twenty-nine thousand jobs in three years; the Fuji Research Institute estimated Japanese companies employed eight hundred thousand people they didn’t need, including ‘‘office girls’’ who served green tea to managers.5 Nissan Motor announced plans to cut its workforce by four thousand over the next three years and said it expected to lose the equivalent of about 192 million Canadian dollars (in 1991).6 Fujitsu, Japan’s largest computer company, was reducing its workforce by six thousand over two years in an attempt to lower fixed costs and improve profits in the face of the continuing weak demand.
And the bad news continued—for years.
Compared to Western Europe, where unemployment rose to double digits during the same period, Japan remains an oasis of opportunity. A terrible labor market in Japan consists of 5 percent of the workforce out on the streets, which would be a welcome scenario in many other parts of the developed world, including the United States. In Japan, though, this level of unemployment is considered a catastrophe in the making.
Layoffs notwithstanding, the people taking it on the chin in this historic transformation in Japan weren’t the old-timers, the workers with seniority who could rely on lifetime contracts. Younger workers in Air’s generation were the people most likely to be out of luck and out of a job. USA Today chronicled the upheaval, explaining to readers that the long-vaunted Japanese system was headed for the junk heap of capitalism. What was to take its place? An army of part-time, expendable workers:
Japan’s economy has produced more than 17 million . . . “non- regular” workers toiling in part-time, contract or temporary-agency jobs. Easy to fire, these chronic part-timers are absorbing the shock of Japan’s downturn: The government estimates that 158,000 have lost their jobs since October .
When they first attracted attention in the late 1980s, irregular workers were viewed as social rebels, opting out of the dreary, 60- hour workweeks endured by corporate Japanese “salarymen” to enjoy flexible hours and undemanding jobs. The Japanese, who habitually absorb and transform foreign terms, started calling these outsiders “freeters”—combining the English word “free” with a German word for worker, arbeiter.
But what looked at first like a liberating social change proved to be the beginning of a wrenching economic transformation.
The chances that Akiro will find a job like the one his father held one generation ago have all but collapsed. Layoffs that began in the early1990s have left a moonscape full of craters for his generation. As a latter- day businesswoman, his mother is aware of the ups and (mainly) downs of the job market. But when she tries to explain to herself why her kid has turned out to be a disappointment, those structural forces recede into the background. What takes center stage are her own failings as a mother, the nagging worry that her marriage didn’t quite measure up, and the sense that she and her friends made some serious mistakes in raising the next generation. It’s a moral tale, and it isn’t pretty.