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Sunday, Nov. 13, 2005

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

The freedom myth of freelancing


A NAGGING SENSE OF JOB INSECURITY: The New Reality Facing Japanese Youth, by Yuji Genda, translated by Jean Connell Hoff. Tokyo: International House of Japan/LTCB International Trust, 2005, 203 pp., $35 (cloth).

Being young in Japan isn't what it used to be. And many young Japanese are probably rather pleased by the timing of their births, not envying the lifeless lifestyles of their elders. However, many of those who are tuning out and turning off find themselves stuck at home and working for peanuts; accidental rebels without much independence or many prospects. Yuji Genda is an articulate advocate who, in explaining why job discrimination against young Japanese is folly, demolishes various myths.

The twin foundations of post-Word War II Japan -- stable families and secure jobs -- are ever less stable and secure. Divorce and suicide rates are rising while firms are jettisoning paternalistic employment practices. All this, too, in one of the world's most rapidly aging societies where Japan's social services have not kept pace and the needs of the elderly are largely the burden of their family. Both at home and at work, Japanese are facing harrowing anxieties.

Assessing this upheaval, Genda argues that it is the young Japanese who are getting the shortest end of the stick. His take on the generation gap focuses on how the elder generation is promoting its own economic interests at the expense of young. He refutes Masahiro Yamada's concept of parasite singles, arguing that "the real parasites are the parents, the generation of middle-aged and older workers on whom society has conferred vested rights and who make their livelihood at the expense of young people."

Protecting the jobs and perquisites of middle-age salarymen from the baby-boom generation (born 1947-49) has meant fewer good job opportunities for young Japanese. Firms have drastically cut hiring of new workers on full-time contracts to save money and thus insulate the boomers from the consequences of prolonged recession and heightened competition.

Generation Slump -- young Japanese who came onto the job market since the early 1990s -- has served as a shock absorber, ensuring that these baby boomers have a cushy ride in their final years before retirement. This is a problem because these young Japanese who have resorted to hopping around low-paid jobs face bleak futures. Lacking skills, training and experience, they are destined to remain on the labor market periphery as "freeters" (freelance part-time workers) stuck in insecure dead-end jobs with few benefits.

The media initially took a romantic perspective, suggesting that this new generation was casting off the shackles and dulling conformity of salary-man hell. More recently, however, there has been a decided shift toward critically examining the causes and consequences of the swelling ranks of freeters.

Genda points out that there has been a tendency to either ignore the problem -- the looming labor shortage will automatically solve it -- or to blame youth for lacking the proper spirit and values to pursue a career. He rejects both notions, demonstrating why a tightening labor market is not a panacea and pointing out that irregular employment has been forced onto young workers. By ignoring or blaming the victim, older workers, firms protecting them and government officials can avoid taking effective measures.

In this context, Genda criticizes plans to raise the mandatory retirement age as stealing job opportunities from young job seekers. He implies that the real problem is Japan's inflexible employment system where employers' right to dismiss workers is strictly limited. This means that firms can only control the numbers of workers through hiring and retiring. Thus, restrictions on dismissing mid-career workers combined with a higher retirement age means fewer jobs for young job seekers.

Reading Genda, one might think that if only the selfish old geezers would ride into the sunset, prospects for younger Japanese would become rosier. Not so. The good old days of lifetime employment and extensive on-the-job training are fading rapidly. Overall, employment growth since the mid-1990s has been overwhelmingly concentrated in part-time and temporary work. Firms may have started introducing these flexible employment practices to protect the baby-boom cohort, but now they are becoming the norm. This is a fundamental structural shift in the employment system, meaning that as boomers retire, firms will replace them increasingly with irregular workers.

For the unemployed and the underemployed, Genda suggests people become their own bosses by starting their own businesses and develop cunning in the workplace. This is neither an inspired nor practical prescription, but music to the ears of policymakers and CEOs because stressing individual initiative relieves them of taking any action.

Despite falling short on remedies for addressing the problems facing young workers, this timely and good translation is must reading for anyone interested in the sweeping transformations involving the Japanese labor market and employment practices.

Jeff Kingston teaches history at Temple University Japan.


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