In a 2017 article at Business Insider, I saw an insult that I had hoped had vanished: “parasite singles.” That’s a term coined by Japanese sociologist Masahiro Yamada in 1997 to disparage single people who live with their parents.
Read enough about these supposedly parasitic single people, anytime in the two decades that the insulting term has been in use, and you will find that there is more to these single people than the implication that they are just lazy bums who want other people to provide for them. The Business Insider article, for example, acknowledges that “low-paying, unstable jobs” as well as “corporate restructuring” make it challenging for single people to find secure jobs with decent salaries.
Some of the single people living with their parents have health issues. One of those “parasite” singles described in the 2017 article used to have a “hefty salary” but he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and had to leave his job.
The term “parasite singles” is obviously offensive. But it is not just an insult. It is a cover. An important consideration is a societal one – a deficiency of decent jobs. Instead of pointing to that structural issue, and addressing it with policy proposals, “experts” simply pin the blame on the single people. They must be parasitic good-for-nothings. Even if a devastating diagnosis, such as Parkinson’s disease, has forced single people to leave jobs at which they had excelled, they still get called parasites.
Popularized articles about “parasite singles” have little to say about the meaningfulness that can come with multi-generational living, or about the benefits that can accrue to the parents as well as the adult children. That would ruin the fun of belittling single people.
I first mocked the “parasite single” term in my book, Singled Out, in 2006. (Excerpt is below.) One thing has changed since then. It used to be that mostly only single women got called parasites. Now single men are tarred with that epithet, too.
Excerpt from Singled Out:
When people pity the presumed plight of the poor single person, perhaps they have in mind the exclusion of single people from the boastful decadence of resorts like Sandals. Maybe that’s what singles are missing; that’s why their lives are so sad.
Enter Japan’s new generation of singles. The women among them have garnered the most attention. They have jobs and they are marrying later than Japanese women ever have before. In the meantime, they live at home and maintain close ties with their parents, as so many Japanese women have done before them. A story in The Washington Post noted that new single women also nurture and value their friendships with each other. As one woman told the reporter, “In Japan we treat our girlfriends well. Boyfriends come and go, but girlfriends are your sustenance, your life.”
Groups of Japanese single women dine together regularly, and at some of the upscale restaurants, the tables of single women outnumber the tables of couples. They often travel together, too. The Sheraton Grande Tokyo Bay Hotel offers them a popular Cinderella package, complete with a sumptuous room, and an invitation to the pool, sauna, and some aromatherapy. Some of the women drive luxury cars and buy themselves pricey presents for special occasions.
There is no dark aura enveloping these Japanese singletons. They have close ties with friends and family, and social lives to rival those of any American couples at Sandals. Surveys suggest that “they are the most contented demographic group in Japan.” The Post story, then, together with all of the other media attention lavished on these single women, must have been a celebration of the joy of singlehood in a forward-looking Japanese society.
Well, not exactly. Japanese singles were in the spotlight in the year 2000 because a Japanese sociologist, Masahiro Yamada, had put them there with his new and much-hyped book about them. This new demographic, he thought, was bad news. Because these singletons were still living with their parents, they were hurting the economy by not buying enough durable consumer goods. They were also driving down the birth rate with their late marriages. They seemed at risk for never really maturing. Plus, they had an attitude problem; since they were not paying for housing or supporting families, they felt free to reject jobs they did not like. Yamada’s bottom line was this: These new singletons, both men and women, “cast a shadow on the health of society in the future.” (Oops, there’s that dark aura again.) He gave them a name, “parasite singles.” These 20- and 30-something year old singles, who had jobs but were still living at home, were sucking resources out of their parents.
Not everyone agreed with Yamada. Critics noted that although the “parasite singles” were not buying durable goods, they were keeping the economy humming with their other purchases. The age of first marriage was indeed increasing, and the birth rate decreasing, but these trends were not unique to Japan; in fact, they were characteristic of many other nations. “Parasite singles” were not blithely rejecting good job offers – there were fewer good jobs to be had. They were living with their parents not just to mooch off them but because the cost of housing had slipped beyond reach. Moreover, parents often liked the arrangement. The extended time that children spent at home afforded those offspring more opportunities to pursue higher education and to get a financial head start. Parents anticipated that their adult children would care for them when they grew older and needier.
Others, of course, disagreed with the critics of Yamada, and the discussion continued. Years later, though, when people scratch their heads and try to recall something they once read about the new singles in Japan, they will probably recall just one phrase: “parasite singles.”
On second thought, they might remember one other thing. Those parasite singles? They were women.
In fact, though, they were no more likely to be women than men. It was the press who pinned the parasite tag primarily on the women. When Japanese women did marry, many would set aside any further educational or career aspirations, and tend to the home, the children, and the care and feeding of their husbands. However, no one has yet referred to the indulged Japanese men as “parasite marrieds.”