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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (December 18, 2002)

Young People Getting Short End of the Stick

Masahiko ISHIZUKA (Managing Director, Foreign Press Center, Japan)

During most of the postwar period, Japan has largely been free of deep social divisions. Nor has it experienced a serious generation gap or conflict of interest between generations. There are signs, however, that this may no longer be taken for granted.

With the long-running economic woes unlikely to go away anytime soon, a gloomy mood grips the public. What is particularly notable is the deep pessimism young Japanese are feeling about their own and the nation's future.

The situation worries and upsets older generations, who are inclined to criticize young people for what they take to be laziness and diffidence, accompanied by disagreeable behavior, manners and lifestyles.

Throughout the history of mankind, older generations have always shown dissatisfaction with younger people. Moreover, the fact tends to be forgotten that young people are the product of society and the way the older generation lives. The young mirror society and their elders.

But the situation in Japan today is more than just that, argues Yuji Genda, economics professor at Gakushuin University in Tokyo. He maintains that the seemingly deplorable state of Japanese young people does not stem from their moral or spiritual decay. The fact is that they are alienated and victimized by an economic and social system that disproportionately favors the older generation. This is a point missed by the public and overlooked by the media.

Issues of job security and unemployment are overwhelmingly focused on middle-aged or older males. It is true that people in these groups have heavy responsibilities for their families and, therefore, their joblessness has larger and more immediate economic and social consequences.

The popular perception that the older generation should be protected is so entrenched that society is oblivious to the plight of young people. The problems of young people and their potential long-term impact on society and the economy tend to be overlooked or underestimated.

It is not accorded due attention, for example, that the unemployment rate for the 15-24 age bracket is well over 12%, although the nation is alarmed that the overall jobless rate is a record 5.5%. Unemployed white-collar workers with college education, who get the closest media and public attention as a symbol of job insecurity amid the prolonged economic slump, are below 5% and very few in actual numbers - under 2% of the total jobless ranks of 3.8 million.

Times are increasingly tough for young job seekers, largely because companies are still inclined to minimize payroll cuts (which are not as easy as in Western countries). There are strong social pressures to secure jobs for middle-aged and older people, which in turn forces companies to refrain from new hiring of young people, typically new graduates.

In short, the older generation and the young are competing for jobs in the shrinking job market, which is slanted to protect the group with vested interests in the existing social and corporate employment system.

Young people are finding it increasingly difficult to find jobs, and even if they go, the jobs are less and less attractive - longer, harder and boring. Many of the available jobs are simple, without opportunities for skills development, a sense of fulfillment, or hope for richer future career and life.

This is because big companies, which can afford to provide such training and development programs, are reducing hiring. Those lucky enough to find employment at such companies have to stay with low-end jobs because the lack of new hiring makes it impossible for them to move up more challenging jobs.

Under the circumstances, young people are less and less motivated to stay with the jobs they have. Job-hopping, once considered un-Japanese and viewed with disdain, is becoming common among young people. The growing army of young job-hopping part-timers, especially in the service sector, has emerged as a distinct social phenomenon in recent years.

Such young people and their lifestyle are frowned upon by their parents' generation, who tend to criticize the younger generation as lacking in the traditional Japanese virtues - loyalty, commitment, patience, diligence and hardworking spirit - that contributed to the postwar economic miracle.

Accusations like that are legitimate to some extent, although it is the older generation who are responsible for spoiling the young in the midst of affluence. The way children have been raised has made them what they are today, and it is the responsibility of the parents, schools and society as a whole.

But an important point being missed here is that young people are being economically or socially victimized by the older generation who criticize them, and these older people are scarcely aware of the fact. Because the whole social system, not only the employment system but also social security and taxation, and the national psyche are biased toward the protection of the vested interests of the older generation.

As long as such ignorance continues, the fortunes of young people will be neglected and will deteriorate further, culminating in a huge national loss in the future. Young people are becoming less motivated, less productive, and less hopeful about the future.

Japan is still pleased to note that it is a country free from social instability caused by high unemployment rate for males their teens is already 15% here, on par with a 17% average for the Organization for economic Cooperation and Development as a whole. The only comfort is that the high unemployment rate among youths in this country is not yet translating into rising crime rates.

Genda is perfectly correct in saying the problem is not due to the moral decline of young people or to lack of motivation or independence of spirit. Rather it is, as he argues, a problem that stems from social and economic mechanisms that are geared to maintaining the vested interests of the older generation. This situation is bound to cost the nation dearly by sapping its productivity and vigor over the long term.

(This article originally appeared in the December 9, 2002 issue of The Nikkei Weekly, posted here with the permission of the author and the publisher)

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