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Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Weak work ethic is holding back generation of 'freeters' and drifters


Staff writer

A growing tendency among young Japanese to switch jobs quickly and the phenomenon of "freeters" -- a coined word referring to youths who drift from one part-time job to another -- could be blamed on changing work ethics, according to participants in a recent forum held in Tokyo.

News photo
Kahoru Iwamatsu of the Japan Business Federation discusses the changing work ethics of Japanese youths during the July 11 forum at Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo.

Japan's business community fears that the growing ranks of freeters and the so-called NEET -- "not in employment, education or training" -- pose a threat to the nation's economic potential, at a time when the country faces a shrinking labor force brought about by shifting demographics.

But while the visiting educators from North America agreed that similar tendencies exist in their countries, many of them noted that the behavior of the younger generation is not necessarily something to be seen in a negative light.

A group of 10 teachers from universities, high schools and elementary schools in the United States and Canada took part in a dialogue session held July 11 at Keidanren Kaikan with their Japanese counterparts and businesspeople.

The session was organized by Keizai Koho Center, which invited the North American teachers for a 12-day exchange program, under the theme "Fostering a work ethic in young people: Perspectives of North American educators."

In her opening presentation, Kahoru Iwamatsu, manager of the education policy group of the Labor Policy Bureau of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), explained that roughly 30 percent of university graduates quit their first jobs after a rather short period of employment.

Many of them are apparently confronted with the gap between reality and their preconceived images about their jobs and their companies, Iwamatsu said.

Then, only a small portion of them go on to take up new regular jobs. Most choose the path of the "freeter" -- a Japanese coinage from the English word "free" and the German word "arbeiter" meaning worker -- that is, one who holds a series of part-time jobs, she said.

"While some in the freeter ranks choose the lifestyle with a clear objective of supporting themselves with those jobs until they can realize their dreams in the future, many others are believed to do so merely to take refuge from reality or because they can remain dependent on their parents," Iwamatsu noted.

The increase in the number of such youths, she went on, could seriously damage Japan's economic potential in the future as the nation's working population is forecast to drop sharply due to a declining birthrate.

Today, many of the freeters live with and depend on their parents, and those young people's limited income -- roughly one-fourth of regular workers on average -- makes it difficult for them to become economically independent, Iwamatsu pointed out.

From the corporate viewpoint, the growing ranks of freeters pose a threat because they are missing out on an opportunity to receive systematic job education and skill training, she noted.

Part of the problem comes from the changing environment in the job market, as Japanese firms cut back on regular workers to reduce costs, and rely more on part-time workers as they try to cope with the ups and downs of demand, according to Iwamatsu.

But Iwamatsu also cited what she described as the weakening work ethics of young people, which she attributed to insufficient career education, the declining function of communities as educators, and overprotection and excessive meddling by parents in their children's lives.

Education in Japan has long focused on preparing students to enter prestigious universities that automatically promised good jobs, but not much effort has been made to foster children's views about work -- what jobs they should aspire to in the future or what kind of life they want to lead, she noted.

Therefore, she added, many Japanese youths enter university with only a vague idea about their future.

A different generation

Amy Camardese, assistant professor in education at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, noted that young workers in the United States do not share the work ethics of the baby boomers, those born after the end of the World War II through the 1950s and who now will soon reach retirement age.

News photo
Amy Camardese

"Management experts predict that many companies will have a difficult time retaining young workers as the baby boomers retire," Camardese told the audience. The traditional corporate policies and management style in the U.S. "conflict with the lifestyle of younger workers."

Workers up to the age of 40 in America "don't think twice about changing jobs if they find something better," she said. "It's not unusual for many of these generations to change jobs 10 to 12 times."

Citing a study by a Massachuset Institute of Technology researcher, Camardese said that in the U.S., young workers' values about work commitment differ from their parents' -- particularly over what they will put up with in their organizations and businesses, and with their superiors.

"So we have a very similar problem with Japan," she added.

Another research by a human resources consultant suggests that younger workers want more immediate recognition and rewards than their predecessors did, she said.

"They want more autonomy when it comes to job choices, they want fewer rules that stifle their individuality of expression," Camardese said. "They also are concerned about lifestyle issues: It's no longer necessary for them to work overtime because (quite often) both husband and wife are employed. These younger workers are not inclined to accept authority, often question why they are being asked to do what they are asked to do."

Like in Japan, corporate structure may be a part of the problem, she said, noting that many American firms are beginning to eliminate middle-management jobs, and they're hiring more part-time workers to increase profitability.

But unlike Keidanren's Iwamatsu, Camardese said she does not think that the changing behaviors of the younger generation must be seen in a negative light.

It is possible to put the changes in the right direction, "but we have to figure out what that right direction might be," she added.

Career options

Henry Lewis, head of the greater social studies department at Reynolds Secondary School in Canada's British Columbia, said the changes in the work ethics of young workers are not necessarily viewed as a problem in his country.

Amy Camardese, assistant professor in education at Westminster College in Pennsylvania, noted that young workers in the United States do not share the work ethics of the baby boomers, those born after the end of the World War II through the 1950s and who now will soon reach retirement age.

News photo
Henry Lewis

Just as the nature of work in his province changed in the past few decades from primary industries to more service-oriented ones, the nature of young people has changed, Lewis told the audience.

Like Japanese youths, young Canadians "seem less eager to commit -- whether to career jobs or to marriage," and it is becoming more difficult for young people to leave home and their parents, he said.

Lewis said teachers at his school tell the students that they can expect to have "at least three or four or maybe more jobs" in their working lives. "The idea of one job lasting you for a career is not the message that we've been giving our young students."

He also noted that many young people do not seem to think of pursuing a career as the first option "but to pursue something in the world of recreation before they feel the impulse to set a career in motion."

Lewis cited the example of his 19-year-old daughter, who after completing one year in university in Nova Scotia, is contemplating getting certification as a kayaking guide -- a well-paying job that will also match her love of the outdoors. He said he expects her to engage in the job "for a while before she finds a place to settle down."

Young people tend to be more individualistic than their parents, "but we have to admit that we have created an economy and a society which gives people and consumers many choices, and if our young people wish to make the most use of the choices, maybe that's something that we cannot easily criticize them for," Lewis said. "So I think what we are looking at now is a younger generation who are allowing themselves a wider choice of lifestyles."

"And perhaps they are looking at the fact there is more to life than a working career. Many might be looking at the sort of life that their parents lived and thinking, well, that worked well for Mom and Dad, but perhaps that's not exactly the path that I need to follow," he added.

Lewis said he has two nephews who might be defined as freeters if they were living in Japan because they belong to an age bracket where people could expect them to be already established in their careers.

"The older one has had a few quite significant part-time jobs -- he has worked for a management consultant company in New York, worked for the Red Cross in Africa, and has perhaps come to Japan in some sort of a special program, and has gone to universities in eastern Canada, in Paris and more recently just outside of New York," he said.

"At age 30, he is a freeter, perhaps. But he is a very well-educated young man now hoping to find a job in government in Ottawa," he added.

"So I think the nature of young people is changing, and I think we need to appreciate that in a positive light -- perhaps it may be tied with some positives and negatives, but generally my experience of the younger generation is I have faith in the future for them," Lewis said.

Life after school

Regardless of whether these changes are good or bad, what are the implications for school education? The panelists discussed efforts being made at schools in both North America and Japan to better prepare students for their post-education career.

Camardese said that in her college, internship programs are now a key part of the students' education and are required for most of its majors.

She cited a 2005 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in the U.S. that showed 91 percent of the responding employers had internship programs. Roughly 60 percent of the college students of the Class of 2004 that the respondents hired had an internship experience, she added.

Internships can be valuable for both students and employers, she said, because it enables employers to recruit entry-level positions and also helps students determine if it was the right career choice for them.

Iwamatsu of Keidanren said internship programs are also rapidly drawing attention in Japan as an opportunity for students to learn about realities in society by experiencing work and foster interest in jobs.

Japanese companies should cooperate with the universities to make the programs more meaningful, she said. It is important for the companies to be actively involved in education to foster highly-motivated human resources, and internship programs also give them a chance to build up partnerships with the academic circles, she added.

Lewis of the Reynolds Secondary School said that students taking up several different jobs in a lifetime means they would need to be equipped with a variety of skills, "some of which we will give them in school, others they will pick up on their own."

He said his school has various career preparation programs, in which a student takes two classes at Grade 11 and two more at Grade 12 in a particular career area of their choice.

One example is building trades, in which the students build houses and buildings for the community under the guidance of a building trades instructor, he explained.

"This is not to say that (the participants) will go on and pursue (that career) beyond school, but it gives them a good opportunity of finding out what work is like in those particular areas," he said.

It is also now mandatory for all students in Grades 11 and 12 at schools in British Columbia to take a course called career and personal planning, in which they learn about careers as well as academic options, and engage in aptitude tests, he added.

Lewis also noted that lifelong learning is becoming very popular in North America, in which people -- either for career reasons or recreational purposes -- go back to college and universities on a part-time basis to upgrade their skills and knowledge.

According to Lewis, a private university that opened recently near his community and has proven very popular specializes in mid-career education, offering short intensive courses for people from across Canada.

"It's very expensive but it is geared to people who are already established in their career and maybe want to give their career an extra boost or in fact make some shift into another area," he said.

More radical changes

Other participants in the dialogue session suggested that more fundamental changes must take place -- not only in classrooms but in the mind-set of teachers, parents as well as employers.

News photo
Bonita Daivs, a teacher at Phillipsburg Elementary School in Ohio, speaks up during the dialogue between North American and Japanese educators.

Lola Boxley, a Fourth-Grade teacher at Murch Elementary School in Washington D.C., said it might be already too late if students were to start thinking about their career only after they reach high school or the university.

"In elementary school, we can say when we are teaching a skill: 'This is a skill used by architects as they design and plan our cities.' And then, without any special program coming in, that says to a child that this is useful information beyond Friday's tests and so that there seems to be a purpose to their learning," she said.

"So at the elementary level, I believe that needs to be integrated as a part of the regular instruction, in addition to any other career-type activities, so that students feel that what they are learning today is going to have a great impact on their future," she added.

Many speakers pointed out that education at Japanese schools are so much focused on preparing students for entrance exams for universities that many children come out of school without learning communication and other basic skills that they need in their careers.

"Students are being geared toward preparing for those entrance exams, but are not given necessary skills that they are going to need to enter into the workforce," said Robert Gangi, world history and cultures teacher at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey.

"Perhaps this is something that should be aggressively pursued, so that kids are coming out of schools not only with the knowledge and information, but with the critical skills that they are going to need in the real world."

But that could be difficult with so many students in a class and teachers given too little time to do so much, said Marc Brasof, a social studies instructor at Moorestown High School, also in New Jersey.

Communication skills and creativity will be fostered among children in classrooms through interactive learning, not just giving them knowledge and information, he said.

"But how you do that when you have 40 students per class? It's impossible. . . . You cannot make interactive learning in classrooms with such time constraints and so many students," Brasof said, noting that it is a major issue with teaching in the U.S. -- and in Japan.

Mitchell Vedar, social studies teacher at George Washington High School in San Francisco, suggested that obsession with entrance exams is not a problem of the teachers alone but of the whole society.

In a society where people are so focused on exams, teachers are trapped into teaching their students with the sole purpose of doing well in exams, he said. "So if you want to change this, the society should change so that you are not going to use the exams to judge everyone. . . . It's about changing the culture -- of looking at individual students instead of looking at their exam scores to determine where their future would be," he added.

Shinji Kirimura, professor at Hosei University's faculty of lifelong learning and career studies, said that in Japan a person's post-education life is still heavily influenced by the "name" of the university where he or she had graduated from.

Kirimura's alma mater, the University of Tokyo, is indeed a "convenient" school because a single phone call would set in motion a network of old boys from the elite institution who hold key positions in their respective fields, said Kirimura, who is also an adviser to Furukawa Electric Co.

Because such a social mechanism has long been established, people have been desperate to enter good universities at all costs, he noted.

"This has gone on for a very long time, but it is rapidly changing," Kirimura said. "However, teachers and parents do not understand the changes and remain focused on entrance exams . . . and it is only recently that they have begun to pay attention to the career path that the students will be pursuing."

Koji Oboshi, former chairman of NTT DoCoMo Inc., said that employers have a key role to play -- through their hiring practices -- to change the Japanese obsession with elite universities.

Oboshi recalled that while he was president, the company did not test the academic knowledge of job applicants but tried to assess -- through interviews instead of paper tests -- whether they have a creative talent of working on their own to find and solve problems.

To prevent the interviewer from being influenced by the name of the applicants' universities, information about academic background on their resume was hidden from view, he said.

"The result was that academic background or gender no longer mattered in the hiring of our workers," Oboshi noted. Women accounted for 47 percent of our successful applicants, and very few University of Tokyo students made it, he said, adding that he applied the same principle when promoting personnel within the company.

"Unless corporations change their practices, parents will continue to have an illusion that their sons and daughters would lead a successful life as long as they attend good universities and enter good companies," he told the forum.

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