Lonely old men and ikigai

In November I attended the Mashing Up Conference again. I really love this event because it’s “cool”. It has a casual vibe and is just a bit edgier than your average D&I “empowerment” conference. The team do try to bring some different ideas to the stage as well as some local legends.

I was happy to join two discussions where I could listen to the wry and laser sharp insights of one of those legends, Chizuko Ueno, Professor Emeritus at the University of Tokyo who used her entrance ceremony speech as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the reality of institutional gender discrimination in Japan. Ueno sensei has an amazing delivery style where she challenges with the sweetest, most innocent question that just stops other panelists in their tracks. It is magic to watch!

In the first session, Ueno sensei talked about the family structure – here is the info from the Mashing Up website.

家族のカタチ2019 – 家族 is the bestという呪縛Family Diversity – Time to Reshape the Family Structure「家族末永く仲良く=素晴らしい」。そんな価値観が強い日本社会で、家族とのつながりに苦しんでいる人がいるのも事実。おひとりさま問題、介護問題、夫婦別姓問題も含めて、家族とはどうあるべきか。そのあり方を問い直します。

“Families that get along forever = wonderful.” This value is strong in Japanese society, but it is also true there are people who are suffering due to their family relationships. What should families be like, including people who are alone, people caring for family members, and husbands and wives having different family names? Those things will be reconsidered.

One idea in particular struck me in relation to my work on Ikigai and creating long and healthy lives worth living.

Talking on the subject of 介護 (elder care), Ueno sensei mentioned that she is hearing many adult children say

“I will look after my mother because I love her. But my father?! No way! I can’t stand him.”

It struck me as such a sad and terrible view. I thought about all the fathers who have been focused on their companies with no time for their families. The result is fathers who are so focused on financially supporting the family that they become alienated from the lack of relationship.

Men’s ikigai and their role in the family

A few weeks ago as part of my Ikigai research, I met with Dr. Akihiro Hasegawa, Associate Professor at Toyo Eiwa University and an ikigai researcher. He told me a similar story. Japanese men who live in multi-generational households with their sons after retirement report a decrease in their ikigai. Dr. Hasegawa explains that this is because their ikigai was so tied up in their self identity as the breadwinner, the head of the household, that when the generational roles shift, they lose their sense of self and purpose. Dr. Hasegawa’s research shows a strong link between having an ikigai and better health, slower onset of dementia and so on.

(As a side note, I asked if there was any impact to living with adult daughters and the answer was no. It seems that the father’s ego can survive that relationship into old age!)

Again, this idea of isolated fathers struck me as so sad and yet also so avoidable if we can change the working style and support people living different types of partnerships at home with an emphasis on family first. Glen Wood is doing a lot to raise awareness on パパハラ(Papa Hara – paternity harassment). It isn’t easy for men to ask for permission to break from the サラリマン salariman stereotype and spend time with their families. But the social and personal costs of isolation in old age for these types of people are no longer sustainable.

What do you think?

How can we start to address this problem? Some efforts are being made at the policy level but what can private enterprises and individuals do to support a healthier and happier second life and what might be the positive impact on society from that.