The Young & The Restless

How changing attitudes toward careers are revolutionizing Japanese employment patterns.

By Sarah Noorbakhsh

Japan’s traditional lifetime employment system is in a state of flux as droves of younger employees are quitting their jobs at some of the country’s biggest companies, about 62 years before they’re expected to. So many are walking out in fact that the newly coined key-phrase, san-nen san-wari (three years, 30%), is hot on the agenda at HR departments all over the archipelago. The phrase comes from startling statistics that confirm this new social problem; the Ministry of Health, Labor and Wellness states that in 2004, 36.6% of university graduates had quit their jobs within the first three years of employment, up almost 10% from 10 years before.

Also known as souki rishoku, or early turnovers, the driving factor in this relatively new phenomenon is often debated as pointing towards increased focus on career development and specialization in the workforce, something a system of lifetime employment and periodic job rotation was not built to handle. In his book Why Do Youth Quit In Three Years?, HR consultant Shigeyuki Jo discusses the lack of motivation and frustration many youth feel. “[This generation] knows that, no matter how much blood, sweat and tears they put in, they’ll still be subject to regular pay raises and be promoted along with everyone else.”

Culture shock
Shafu, or company culture, is another sore point for many job seekers, and volumes of discussions online and in print advise youth on the ins and outs of the atmosphere and unspoken rules at various major employers. Casual abuse of finances by upper management and general acceptance of power harassment are just a few in a long list of reasons young people choose to bite the hand that feeds themAlthough cases of mandatory hair styles for freshmen, such as at one major securities firm, or being called by a number and forced to declare love for the company, remain unusual, casual abuse of finances by upper management and general acceptance of power harassment are just a few in a long list of reasons young people choose to bite the hand that feeds them.

A majority of early turnovers “don’t like these ‘traditional’ company customs,” says Shigeki Uchiyama, President of Tempstaff Career. Temp agencies and recruiting agents such as Tempstaff have multiplied at an astonishing speed in the past five years, and growth in the industry shows no sign of stopping. “One of the requests we often get is for placement somewhere without that kind of atmosphere.” While griping about superiors or company culture is not unique to any culture, the effect of some of these outdated codes of practice have on workforce trends has undeniably begun to build a coffin for traditional company structure. But why are new graduates suddenly up in arms against a cultural system that has been part of the Japanese workplace for decades?

“A lot of job seekers approach us and talk about their goals and dreams, stories of how there was no satisfaction at their previous workplace and how they want to become more skilled in a specialist area,” explains Uchiyama. “But after you talk for a while, the truth comes out and you begin to hear stories about bosses and coworkers.” A 2005 survey by job search agent Rikunavi NEXT, probing into the “excuses you tell people and real reasons you left your job,” found that 32% responded “To further my career” as their excuse while 17% responded with, “Because of my boss” as their honest answer. Internet message boards and magazine articles for the under- 30 crowd are brimming with stories about bosses who treat freshman like secretaries, or who go out of their way to humiliate the people below them. More prolific than this, however, are the complaints regarding obligatory drinking parties or aggressive atmosphere similar to PE classes.

Although company culture has remained relatively static for decades, the employment system has not as many major companies struggle to adopt Western-style practices. Efforts to provide pay-for-performance systems as an incentive in companies like Fujitsu and Toyota have only backfired as employees reacted negatively to periodic evaluation and competitive workplaces. Uchiyama explains that although the strategy was to motivate, it had the reverse effect of worsening senpaikohai hierarchical relations as older employees hesitated to properly train those below them for fear of having their position usurped. Younger employees who are stressed by this hostile work environment and lack of training and mentorship often become discouraged and depressed.

Japanese Employment Pattern

Under pressure
Takashi Watanabe, President of Life Balance Management and specialist in workplace mental health, agrees: “The current generation isn’t as adept at dealing with workplace conflict and stress as those in their 40’s and 50’s,” he explains, “and it’s difficult for them to cope with overbearing superiors who demand long hours and a high level of performance, then expect everyone to go out drinking afterwards.”

Adding to the stress put on freshman to function without proper guidance, many companies have decreased training budgets in response to the increasing rate of early turnovers. Both Watanabe and Uchiyama singled out over-reliance on OJT (on-the-job training) as a major source of dissatisfaction amongst younger employees.

Watanabe reports that today about one in five quit because of depression, anxiety or other mental illness. Although depression has only recently been recognized as a social problem, efforts to address the problem have been quick, and today terms like “work-life balance” roll off the tongue easily as employers are becoming increasingly aware of the negative effect they may be having on employees. This has created opportunities for companies such as Life Balance Management that offers both diagnostic services and counseling programs for companies aiming to nip the problem in the bud. Although Japanese companies are increasingly aware of the problem and the growing risk of legal repercussions, Watanabe warns that foreign subsidies perhaps don’t grasp the full scope of the issue and the significance it has to corporate risk management.

By contrast, according to Watanabe, there has also been an increase in desire for lifetime employment—economic conditions play their part and many are drawn by the security and benefits found in the system. But this gravitation towards a familiar system does not necessarily indicate a decrease in the number of turnovers. Experts speculate that the market will continue heading in its current direction as periodic change of employers become the norm. “In the near future we’ll likely see ‘san-nen yon-wari,’” says Uchiyama, “and it’ll be interesting to see how companies are going to deal with that challenge” JI

Top 10 reasons I quit my job

The real reason (honne)

1.My boss

2.The salary

3.The work was boring

4.Company management

5.To improve my career

6.The hours/environment

7.The president is a one-man band

8.My coworkers/superiors

9.The company culture

10.The employment terms

The excuses (tatemae)

1.To improve my career

2.The work was boring

3.Company management

4.The hours/environment

5.The salary

6.My boss

7.The location was inconvenient

8.The company culture

9.The promotional system

10.The HR system

Survey conducted in 2005 of 396 current or ex-job hunters by Rikunavi NEXT Editorial Department