Rising Sons—and Daughters
Japan, which has long fretted about its low birthrate, got limited good news in June, when the government reported that married couples had an average 1.37 kids last year, up from 1.34 in 2007 and the third straight rise from a record low 1.26 in 2005.
But as workers lose their jobs in the recession, the 2009 rate could drop. "Economic uncertainty and job insecurity have made people even less motivated to get married and have children than we had expected," says Shigeki Matsuda, a senior research director at Dai-Ichi Life Research Institute, which last September polled 200 single and 600 married Japanese in their 20s and 30s. Half the singles polled in the much publicized survey said they want to wed but are reluctant to do so now. Among marrieds, some 80% with a child said they want another, with 90% saying the downturn makes that decision difficult.
Now, with citizens 65 and older on track to be 26% of the population by 2015, the government is moving anew to raise the birth rate. An economic stimulus package, approved two weeks ago, earmarks $37 billion for aid to parents with newborns and for new day-care centers. And the Minister of State for Social Affairs and Gender Equality, Yuko Obuchi (daughter of former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi), has endorsed a proposal made by Japan's leading business federation. The idea is to spend 1% of consumption tax revenues, or $25 billion, on efforts to produce more babies. (It's still unclear if the young Obuchi—who is pregnant with her second child—has the political chops to push through a program.)
Government and business have been dragging their feet for years on fixing some of the problems behind the low birth rate—a shortage of day-care centers, for instance. About 40,000 children are on waiting lists at public and private centers. And Mitsui and Sumitomo are among the few offering corporate day care.
Now some in business are trying harder. Panasonic (PC), Hitachi (HIT), and Nissan Motor (NSANY) are giving time off to employees needing fertility treatments. Sharp, NEC, and Canon (CAJ) grant low-interest loans or subsidies to women undergoing artificial insemination, treatments not covered under national health insurance. Some companies are even granting paternity leave. Meanwhile, marriage and children have become hot cultural topics. In May public TV's NHK aired a dramatic series about kon-katsu, or matchmaking. And Baby, Baby, Baby!, a film about a pregnant career woman, is a hit. Says Fumiko Oga, the movie's producer: "We wanted to inspire women who can't make up their minds about having a baby."
J.C. Penney's "Made in America" Tee
J.C. Penney (JCP) says it's a case of a misunderstood message. Over Memorial Day weekend, the retail chain ran ads for a T-shirt with "American Made" printed on the front. In Dallas, Joe Allen, 78, a retired clothing manufacturer, rushed out to buy some. Allen, who says his company was forced out of the industry because of outsourcing, was thrilled to see a retailer promoting domestically produced apparel. At the store, though, he learned from the tag that the shirt was made in Mexico (from U.S. fabric). "I made a little bit of a scene," he admits, then went home and contacted the Alliance for American Manufacturing, which e-mailed J.C. Penney to complain that the T-shirt's slogan was "deceptive." The chain's reply: "American Made" refers to "the actual person wearing the shirt," a spokeswoman wrote back, "not to the manufacturing of the merchandise." J.C. Penney told BusinessWeek it will sell the shirts throughout the summer. The line, it says, is "intended to evoke our American lifestyle and pride in being American."
Germany's Ossies Are Catching Up Fast
Twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the former East Germany is growing faster than the rest of the country by several key measures—and seems to be weathering the economic crisis better. East Germans are still poorer than their Western counterparts, says the government's latest unification status report. But their region has grown faster, with per-capita output at 71% of Western Germany's level, up from 67% in 2000. East Germans are also neck and neck with the "Wessies" in the percentage of residents starting their own companies. And amid the global economic crisis, East German companies—smaller, nimbler, and focused on such growth industries as solar energy—have registered less severe sales declines than West German businesses. West Germany, dominated by such multinationals as carmaker Daimler (DAI), has been slammed by plummeting exports.
Satellites for the Rest of Us
Until now, one corner of the tech world had missed the trend toward miniaturization: the satellite industry. The average weight for the 21 commercial satellites launched so far in 2009 is 257,000 pounds, says the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee. But this trend could shift if a new breed of micro-satellite takes off. NASA researchers have launched more than 50 CubeSats over the past few years: 7 lb. satellites the size of a half-gallon container, with price tags as low as $250,000 each. Now the agency is focusing on launching these micros in "constellations"—groupings of three or more. "The technology is hitting its stride," says Andrew Kalman, a consulting professor at Stanford and CEO of Pumpkin, a San Francisco developer of an early CubeSat. CubeSat constellations, Kalman says, could allow insurers to monitor natural disasters or energy companies to track oil-rig output across the globe.