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No.5 ,Economy  Feb 02, 2011

A CONTRARIAN VIEW OF YOUNG PEOPLE TODAY

The employment prospects for graduates entering the job market this year are reportedly the worst on record. This is not because companies are performing especially badly–at least not yet. Results at Japan’s big corporations in particular are not markedly worse than they have been for several years. But recruitment indicators at the big firms are dire. Though small and medium-sized enterprises are much more positive about hiring new employees, new graduates have their sights set on finding a job with a big company–preferably a major blue-chip firm offering maximum security. I am a father myself, with children in college and high school. My work as chief operating officer at the Industrial Revitalization Corporation of Japan also gave me an opportunity to study the structural problems inherent in Japanese corporate culture at close range. The impression I have of young people today based on my own observations of the employment situation differs quite markedly from the prevalent view.

Today we hear all sorts of complaints that members of the younger generation are “herbivorous” (apathetic and unambitious) and “introverted” (lacking interest in foreign countries). If things are too tight at the big companies, try your luck with the smaller firms, some say. Others direct their ire at the big companies, accusing them of sending jobs overseas. And along with these stale criticisms of big business, we even hear blame being pinned on the administration that left office five years ago: Our problems, some would have it, result from the way former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichirō (2001-6) and his financial guru Takenaka Heizō put market principles and competition before everything else.

I wish these people would take the time to consider the situation more carefully. There has been a clear tendency over the past few years toward tighter restrictions on the labor market. And after the bashing that foreign capital has taken in the Japanese financial markets and the adoption of antibusiness policies by the government, we cannot hope for industrial investment from overseas even if we beg for it. We are being left behind in terms of liberalizing trade too, as can be seen in the brouhaha about whether Japan should be a part of the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (TPP).

It is the members of the older generation who are cutting themselves off from the world. They are the ones taking shelter inside a secluded Japan, resisting the idea of open competition and seeking to block the entry of foreign money and foreign workers. They are desperate to maintain the peaceful way of life they have always known in their familiar little village. It is the people in this older generation who have supported the government’s recent shifts of policy. Japan is a well-functioning democracy–and the country’s inverted population pyramid, coupled with the fact that older citizens are more likely to exercise their right to vote, means that people in late middle age and older, including me, naturally have a powerful influence on government policy.

This older generation not only dominates the political field–it also holds the bulk of the nation’s wealth and is taking a subsidized ride on the national social security system. Members of this generation show no inclination to think seriously about reforming the public pension system, which has now declined to such a state that it is almost openly exploitative of the younger generation. They display the same stubbornly defensive attitude toward the existing public health insurance system, shooting down any proposal that involves tinkering with the existing intergenerational balance of charges and benefits. This sort of attitude is seen even in the government’s Tax Commission–for which “income redistribution” seems to mean not fairer distribution of the wealth currently being hoarded by the older generation but taking a bigger and bigger cut from high-earning younger workers.

Members of the older generation are firmly blocking the way for younger people to win higher incomes by dint of hard work, while making sure that nobody lays a finger on their own stashes of cash. And when younger people make an effort to break through this impasse, taking positive steps to open the country to the outside world, their elders resort to labeling them “traitors” or “tools of the [foreign capitalist] vultures.”

Given these conditions, the reaction of new graduates is not surprising. They are merely adapting naturally to their environment. Since the option of joining a company straight out of college–their only reliable route to lifetime employment as a regular employee–has been closed to most of them, it is only natural that they have adapted by developing a slower metabolism (switching to a “herbivorous” lifestyle) and seeking to avoid being labeled as internationalists who do not love their own country properly (becoming “introverted”).

The truth is that young people realize only too well that the stopgap measures being adopted by those in power are designed to protect the vested interests of the older generation. Perhaps the classic example of this is the case of a certain aviation company, once nationally owned. When an attempt was made to reform the company’s pension scheme, which was clearly exploitative of the younger cohort of employees, large numbers of beneficiaries of the scheme started to kick up a fuss. “We can’t respond to these proposals until we see a vision for rebuilding in the future. There must be other cuts you can make first.” These are lines we have heard before. Essentially, these people were dragging in issues from another level and reversing cause and effect to protect their own vested interests.

For young people today, the situation is clear. Companies (“villages”) guaranteeing lifetime employment, regular pay rises with seniority, and a generous pension are extremely scarce, and they likely to become even thinner on the ground in the future. This is not a problem that can be addressed by government policy or regulations. It stems from more fundamental problems rooted deep in society, the result of global trends and the makeup of the population. This is something that recent graduates understand far better than the older generation, having witnessed at first hand the struggles and hardships of their immediate seniors in the so-called “lost generation.”

Japanese society is a harsh environment for those who have been ejected from the shelter of the village. Young people know that the older generation consists largely of people who have built up just enough assets and entitlements to let them hang on within this shelter, and that these older people have no serious intention of letting anyone fiddle with their vested interests. This is what gives rise to the situation we see at present, where jobs that seem to promise long-term security are inundated with applicants. The view of young people is that if you cannot get in there, it does not matter much where you go–the situation is much the same everywhere. And they are completely right. The only consolation is that, thanks to deflation, eking out a peaceful herbivorous existence is not in itself particularly difficult.

Looking at the situation in this way enables us to see that “young people today” are in fact adapting assiduously to their environment and are bracing themselves at an instinctive level to survive an age of chaos. Increasing numbers of young people, particularly women, are taking the initiative to travel overseas on their own to hone their ability to compete in the global environment. Meanwhile, the vast majority, those without the fighting strength and hunting skills required to move abroad, stay at home in deflation-bound Japan and seek to survive by entering a herbivorous hibernation. Both of these approaches deserve our respect.

My generation and those slightly older will fade from the scene, or at least become considerably weakened, soon enough with the passage of time. The people still clinging to a narrow-minded “expel the barbarians” view of the world will vanish within a decade or so. The immediate postwar generation and the one that followed (my own) were lucky to live through the good times, but have proved of surprisingly little use when things came to the crunch and Japan was confronted with a real crisis. We are little different from the “80,000 loyal bannermen” who were powerless to prevent the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate and the opening of Japan under foreign pressure in the mid-nineteenth century.

As a general rule, people start to mutter about “young people today” only when their own powers have started to wane. Apparently the same phrase can be found carved into the ruins of ancient Egypt. Revolutionary figures have always attracted the opprobrium of the older generation. Katsu Kaishū and Sakamoto Ryōma before they became famous or, further back, the young Taira no Kiyomori and Oda Nobunaga–all of them were of a type to make older people wrinkle their brows and mutter about the sorry state of “young people today.”

My message to the young people of Japan is this: There is no need to panic. Suffer the hardship and stagnation of the present times, and take your failures and setbacks on the chin. Retire to lick your wounds, and make yourself stronger in body and mind. Sooner or later, your time will come. And when it does, the strength you have built up as a result of present disappointments will surely stand you in good stead.

Translated from “Wakamono yo, zasetsuryoku o kitaeyo,” Voice, February 2011, pp.19-21. (Courtesy of PHP Institute) [February 2011]

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