JILPT Research Eye
Distress in Childrearing Households

October 12, 2017
(Originally published on March 27, 2017 in Japanese)


Yanfei ZHOU

Senior Researcher, Department of Human Resource Management

I. Childrearing households living in an “age of uncertainty”

With a serious decline in the birth rate, there is growing public concern over issues of childrearing. Social support for childrearing households is increasingly strengthened through almost fully subsidized childbirth costs, free medical treatment for small children, enhanced childcare leave, an increase in the number of nurseries, expanded care for sick and recovering children, and free tuition at senior high school, and so on. However, positive comments that childrearing today is “easier” or “less demanding” than it used to be is hardly ever heard from mothers. If anything, social issues connected with childrearing are now emerging more frequently than before, in forms such as child poverty, child abuse, children eating alone at home, or the “juggling act” for women who balance employment with housework and childrearing.

Setting aside the question of how effective these social support systems are, this situation is thought to have arisen because childrearing households in contemporary Japan find themselves in an “age of uncertainty,” with unpredictable and unstable future. After the Second World War through the first half of the 1990s, Japanese society was one in which earned income generally continued to grow. Amid prospects of sustained economic growth, employment practices involving lifelong employment and seniority-based pay became established and employment stability rose. With the collapse of the bubble economy, however, Japanese society started to shift toward the era of income stagnation and high employment uncertainty from the second half of the 1990s. The golden age of economic growth was over; now, in an attempt to survive, companies embarked on a series of measures including rigorous selection when hiring new graduates, expanded hiring of non-regular employees, wage suppression, revision of seniority-based pay, and cutting of middle-aged and older employees.

II. Wife’s earned income is now more important than ever

According to the “Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions” by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, the real gross income of childrearing households peaked at 7.86 million yen in 1997, then fell significantly until 2000. Since then, it has generally remained stagnant at a level of around 7 million yen. In the most recent 2015 survey, the real gross income of childrearing households was 7.13 million yen, about 10% below the peak level. Compared to the vast decline in average incomes of workers in general, however, the fall in gross income of childrearing households, for better or worse, has been limited to about 10%. This is because participation in the labor force by wives who used to be full-time housewives has, to a certain extent, mitigated the fall in incomes of childrearing households.

According to the Third National Survey of Households with Children conducted by JILPT in 2014, wives are engaged in some kind of paid work in 70.6% of childrearing households. In two-parent households with working wives, about a quarter of the family’s gross income is from the wife’s earned income, on average. It would be safe to say that fluctuations in wives’ earnings have a decisive effect on increases or decreases in the gross income of childrearing households. A follow-up survey of childrearing households conducted by JILPT showed that, in two-parent households where the gross income increased by more than 10%, the annual income derived from the wife’s employment increased by 490,000 yen on average (JILPT 2014). In two-parent households where the gross income fell by more than 10%, conversely, the wife’s annual income from employment decreased by an average of 570,000 yen.

To maintain the financial affluence of childrearing households, the wife’s working income is now more important than ever. For the majority of women, employment is no longer a binary decision of “Yes or No,” but a quantitative decision of “When and How Much.” This is raising levels of distress in childrearing households.

III. This is how distress was created

Compared to men, women are overwhelmingly more likely to work in part-time and other low-wage jobs. The freedom to work at times of day that suit the individual has been seen as the greatest advantage of part-time and other low-wage non-regular employment. However, this advantage has gradually been lost in recent years. The causes of this include the personnel cost reduction and the spread of complex algorithm technology. Thanks to advances in algorithm technology, computers can predict consumer demand quickly, and systems that create “just-in-time” staff rotas with the aim of minimizing personnel costs are starting to permeate throughout the retail industry, catering and other service industries (Boushey 2016). Under just-in-time systems, workers are robbed of the freedom to decide their own working hours; they may be asked to work on days when they were due to have time off, or their work is cancelled on days when they were due to work, all for the convenience of the employer.

Meanwhile, the increased supply of female labor has spurred an expansion of the so-called “24/7 economy,” in which production activity continues for 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Full-time housewives can purchase various goods and services within the scope of the traditional “8/5 economy” (production activity, eight hours a day for five days a week). While many working housewives only have opportunities to engage in these consumer activities early in the morning, at night, on days off, or at other times outside normal working hours. Changes in consumer trends have led to major changes in production activity. The most direct change is that this increase in consumer activity outside the “8/5 economy” has boosted labor demand in atypical time bands. Ironically, many of those engaged in work in these atypical hours are the women themselves. The present reality is that the less experience of work a woman has, the more likely she is to have no option but to work in atypical time bands.

IV. Empirical analysis on the content of distress

JILPT Research Report No.189 Kosodate setai no disutoresu [Distress in childrearing households] analyzes various forms of distress encountered by childrearing households, based on an original social survey.

In Chapter 1, Aya Abe focuses on economic distress. Abe’s paper highlights a negative spiral whereby financial hardship leads to divorce, which in turn causes further financial hardship. Although the correlation between poverty and divorce is only confirmed in analysis of cross-sectional data, this study warns that the loss of financial affluence could lead to family collapse in childrearing households.

As women’s employment during the childrearing phase becomes the norm, the papers by Tomoe Naito (Chapter 2), James Raymo (Chapter 3) and Naofumi Sakaguchi (Chapter 4) analyze distress arising from women’s employment. Of these, Naito (Chapter 2) indicates that women who continue to work before and after pregnancy and childbirth are very likely to have mothers (grandmothers of their children) who also worked during the childrearing phase. Raymo (Chapter 3) finds that women’s employment is being pushed upwards not only by “living with the children’s grandparents” but also by “living close to the grandparents.” Sakaguchi (Chapter 4) suggests that pre- and post-childbirth employment paths of women with high educational backgrounds and women who have specialist qualifications tend to be classified in the “working mother group.”

As women’s employment grows and the income environment of childrearing households becomes increasingly harsh, Akiko Oishi (Chapter 5) and Yanfei Zhou (Chapter 6) analyze the various problems that affect children, and the causes of those problems. Of these, Oishi (Chapter 5) focuses on the impact of night work by mothers on their children’s school grades. Although a negative impact is confirmed in analysis of cross-sectional data, this impact turns out to be insignficant in panel data estimation at three points in time. Zhou (Chapter 6) sheds light upon the problem of child abuse, for which cases of consultation have been increasing sharply in recent years. Zhou shows that, besides pathological factors such as the mother’s tendency toward depression, poverty and other aspects of the economic environment are also significantly involved with child abuse.

V. Policy Implication

So, is there any chance of alleviating distress in childrearing households through policy intervention? Although there is no universal remedy, a number of possibilities have come into view through the analysis in this report.

Firstly, the most important task is to relieve economic distress in low-income households by strengthening livelihood recovery support for those households, while reducing the burdens of tax and social security contributions on childrearing households. Specific measures for livelihood recovery support could conceivably be aimed at raising the “earning power” of childrearing households through quality vocational training, recurrent education after graduation from school, or enhanced intern systems for housewives who seek a return to employment.

Secondly, an urgent task is to reduce employment distress and childrearing distress in mothers. Specific initiatives could include removing factors that prevent “living together with” and “living near” grandparents, providing advices and work-life balance lectures to people with the childrearing roles, and providing free extracurricular study support for children of low-income families.

Finally, a reform of male and female working styles is essential. If we can break through the present reality whereby men work in the primary labor market regardless of the family, all housework and childcare is assigned to women, and women work part-time for low wages in the secondary labor market, we should be on the way to reducing distress in childrearing households.


  1. Boushey, H. 2016. Finding Time: The Economics of Work-life Conflict. Cambridge: Harvard University Press:71-95.
  2. JILPT (The Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training). March 2017. Kosodate setai no disutoresu [Distress in childrearing households]. Research Report No.189. Tokyo: JILPT.
  3. Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare. 1986-. “Comprehensive Survey of Living Conditions.”新しいウィンドウ