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Aging Modernity and Dying Towns

Aging Modernity and Dying Towns
—Yuan-Horng Chu, Institute of Social Research and Cultural Studies, National Chiao Tung University


This research focuses on the severe phenomena and problems interconnected and unprecedented (and thus at the forefront of “modernity”) in developed countries in Europe, the U.S., and East Asia such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. The problems are as follows: the population and labor force have been rapidly shrinking (not in the state of famine, plague, and warfare). The dynamics of domestic consumption has been decreasing. The long-term stagnation of salary--the median of men’s salary in the U.S. has remained stagnant since the 1980s, while the average income in Japan has decreased by almost 25% between 1997 and 2015, as the asset value in Japan shrank during the same period. The pension system has undergone crises and reached the point of collapse. The public debts in the U.S., Japan and the European countries explode as the corporate and personal debts (including mortgage loan, student loans and consumption loan) experience a significant increase. The NEET phenomenon, much debated in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea 20 years ago, or the Accordian Families (K.S. Newman) in which adult children still live with their parents, has also become a prevalent social phenomenon in the U.S. and Europe in recent years. The appearance of hikikomori [i.e. reclusive adolescents or adults that withdraw from social life] and “herbivore men” who do not engage in relationship nor marriage is coupled by the trend of MGTOW (Man Going Their Own Way) in which American/European men decline intimate relationship and marriage as a reaction to the cultural and legal disadvantage of men induced by feminism. The series of phenomena laid out above lie at the forefront of the shared experience of “modernity” in developed countries in the twenty-first century. Moreover, these phenomena are mutually reinforcing to a downward spiral. Describing conversely, the dissociation of intimate relationship, the invention of contraceptive technology, women’s entrance into professional employment after receiving higher education, and the modern legislation legalizing no-fault divorce all resulted in the severance between family system and reproduction. This inevitably causes the irreversible decrease in population, labor force and consuming capacity, together with the stagnation of salary, youth unemployment or youth working poverty, the bankruptcy of pension system and the explosion of national debts. Europe already realized that, because of the demographical crisis, the European civilization as we know it will not be able to sustain itself; hence, it is constantly anxious for the inevitable dilemma of refugee and immigration crises and the cultural conflict that follows. In comparison to the questions and artistic movements such as fascism and Bolshevik futurism that concerned the European classical sociologists one century ago, the European theory today are concerned with “Governing by Debt” (Lazzarato), “the coming of no future” (Beradi) or the nostalgia for the so-called “Retrotopia” in Zygmunt Bauman. This research project asks if “modernity” ages? If the concept of the modern, first emerging in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, referred to an era different from the previous ones, then what are the issues concerning twenty-first-century “modernity” that are unprecedented and demanding our attention? Globalization still is the locus of contestation, while the challenges posed by climate change and the environment become the current hotspots of the world politics. In short, this research does not investigate the developing societies in South Asia, Middle East and Africa that seek economic growth and development benchmarked against modernity. Rather, it explores issues of the development (or aging) of modernity that lie at the forefront in developed societies in Europe, the U.S. and East Asia (e.g. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan). China will be an interesting point of reference that lies at the border. Although China is still a developing country, it is already affected by an element of modernity—aging. For example, because of the one-child policy that resulted in the massive demographical change and the implementation of pension system over the past ten years, the series of phenomena at the crux of this research is expected to gradually arise within the next 25 years. This research does not treat the problem within the confinement of national border, but rather, it seeks to understand the contemporary social problems by situating the controversial social issues in Taiwan within a wider context with comparative framework from the perspective of “modernity” that has evolved throughout the past few centuries. Meanwhile, it purports a reflexive and theoretical interpretive viewpoint to reexamine the concept of “modernity.”