Don’t Blame the Unmarried
amada Masahiro has recently pub- they encounter anything troublesome. Judging from sta-
lished a book titled Parasaito shin- tistics relating to young people working full-time, however,
guru no jidai (The Age of “Parasite” there is no sign of a fall in the length of time that young
Singles) in which he examines the workers remain with one company. Even in the 1990s, the
growing cohort of people aged be- average number of years worked within the same company
tween 20 and 34 who are unmar- by both men and women in their late twenties and early
ried and live with their parents, of thirties has hardly changed. The equivalent figure has been
whom he estimates there are as rising, meanwhile, among men in their fifties and over.
many as 10 million nationwide in This is in complete contrast to the notion that such prac-
Japan.* These young adults reject the falls in living stan- tices as long-term or lifetime employment are fading away.
dards that, they fear, would accompany getting married or Some say that young people’s work patterns are be-
living independently, claims Yamada. By choosing instead coming more varied. As proof, they point to the fact that
to continue living with and depending on their parents, among people under 30 the proportion of those in perma-
they hope to maintain the comfortable lifestyles they have nent employment—officially defined as “executives” or
always enjoyed. He also says that the increase in the num- “people working on contracts of more than one year or
bers of such singles is a cause of the recent trend for peo- where the duration of employment is unspecified”—is
ple to marry later and is consequently exacerbating Japan’s falling. Among people in their teens who are out of school
declining birth rate. and willing to work, less than half are now in permanent
Meanwhile, the employment situation for young peo- employment. The equivalent proportion among those in
ple is becoming tougher and tougher. Since the second half their early twenties fell dramatically in the 1990s. On the
of the 1990s the unemployment rate among young people other hand, the proportion of the permanently employed
has sharply increased. Since spring 1999 the proportion of among those aged 30 and over has gone up, and among
men under 25 without a job has stubbornly remained those in their late fifties it has risen by close to 7 percent-
around the 10% mark. Japan’s unemployment rate has age points.
overtaken that of the United States; among people in their Changes such as these could be explained by an un-
twenties, Japan’s rate is now considerably higher. willingness on the part of people in younger age groups
Those putting forward the parasite-singles argument to enter permanent employment. A more natural explana-
usually suggest that “luxury unemployment” is caused by tion, however, is that opportunities for young people to en-
young people’s not needing to work in order to live. They ter permanent employment are decreasing. Surely the rise
prefer, the argument goes, to maintain their living stan- in youth unemployment reflects a worsening of the em-
dards by depending on their parents. From an economic ployment situation for young people caused by major re-
point of view this would be described in terms of a change ductions in corporate recruitment.
in the attitude of young workers, causing an increase in The aging of Japan’s work force is continuing apace.
voluntary unemployment. Just after the second oil crisis in 1979, the proportion of
Many people also hold that changes in working atti- males working full-time in large corporations with over
tudes among the generation of live-at-home singles have 1,000 employees who were aged 45 or over was only 22%.
directly caused unemployment to rise and job switching to Two decades later, in 1999 it had risen to 36%. The aging
become more common. I would like to offer a rebuttal of society as a whole and the rise in the retirement age,
based on a look at conditions in today’s job market. coupled with the fact that those hired in the mass employ-
ment drive of the rapid-growth era are now in their fifties
MISUNDERSTANDING YOUNG PEOPLE
or above, together have meant a shift toward a higher pro-
portion of older people in the workplace.
People say that nowadays young people do not have the In effect, young people are being denied employ-
patience to stick with a job, and that they quit as soon as ment opportunities so as to allow older workers to stay in
their jobs. This situation could be described as a product
*See the preceding article by Yamada.—Ed. of the “vested interests” of middle-aged employees, who
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Born in 1964. Did graduate work in
labor economics at the University
of Tokyo. Has been a visiting re-
searcher at Harvard and Oxford Uni-
versities and an associate professor
at Gakushûin University. Is now a
professor at Gakushûin University.
continue to occupy positions that they held in the past, among sections or transfer them to affiliates and to refrain
robbing young people of employment opportunities that from hiring new employees. Until the mid-1990s it was
traditionally would have been open to them. As the ratio possible for large corporations to offload excess employees
of workers aged 45 and over at large corporations has in- to small and medium-sized companies within their corpo-
creased, the number of new graduates hired has decreased rate groups through temporary transfers and other such
substantially, confirming the power of these “vested in- arrangements. Unlike past downturns, however, the eco-
terests.” nomic troubles of the late 1990s have forced smaller firms
The power of older workers stems from the employ- themselves to slash recruitment. Consequently, the only
ment customs fundamental to Japanese corporations. Cor- way left for large corporations to squeeze their labor costs
porations say that they are working to gradually phase out is to restrict their recruitment of young people. There are
the seniority-based wage structure and introduce a system few jobs on offer to young people like those found at large
based on merit. Despite this, however, the wage structures corporations—where wages are high, long-term employ-
of Japanese corporations, and above all large corporations, ment is the norm, and individuals can develop their skills
remain just as deeply colored as ever by elements of sen- through in-house training. This shows that the decline in
iority. Even in the 1990s, the closeness of the correlation employment opportunities for young people and rising
between an employee’s length of service and level of unemployment cannot be explained simply by changes in
monthly salary has hardly changed. With the seniority sys- attitudes among workers, such as the alleged trend toward
tem essentially being maintained, therefore, the aging of viewing work as a “hobby” that proponents of the parasite-
the work force is causing personnel costs to increase dra- singles hypothesis point to. One cannot say that all un-
matically. employment among these singles is by choice.
Ironically, tackling the cause of spiraling personnel
costs by sacking older workers would itself cost corpora- THE STRUCTURE OF THE JOB MARKET
tions dearly. The human capital they have accumulated
through on-the-job training will be lost if they dismiss Some take the optimistic view that the problem of youth
senior employees. That is why corporations, and especially unemployment will naturally solve itself because of a labor
those that have given priority to developing employees’ shortage. It is certainly true that the declining youth pop-
skills, are doing their best to avoid employment reform, ulation will cause a drop in the number of young job seek-
even at the expense of their profits. The trend for older ers. Yet the number of young people being recruited is
workers to remain in long-term jobs is a reflection of this. falling even faster because of the aging of the work force.
Legally speaking, corporations are in principle free to Consequently, full-time and permanent employment is
make employees redundant. In reality, however, if a cor- decreasing, and unemployment is increasing. These phe-
poration tries to dismiss an employee, it soon discovers nomena are exacerbating young people’s economic depend-
that severe restrictions are imposed by judicial precedent. ence on their parents, which in turn adds momentum to
Standards governing the right to dismiss workers are not the trends toward delaying marriage and having fewer chil-
set out in a way that is generally understandable. Compa- dren that are cited in criticism of “parasite” singles.
nies therefore fear that dismissals will lead to expensive Workers are aware that young people’s employment
court cases. In its 1999 report, the Organization for Eco- opportunities are being sacrificed for their own job secu-
nomic Cooperation and Development ranked Japan’s reg- rity. That is why they dare not mention that youth unem-
ulations governing dismissal among the strictest in the ployment is not the fault of young people. Even young peo-
industrialized world. ple themselves do not acknowledge that compared to those
As a result, to have older workers continue their jobs now in middle age they have fewer chances of finding a job
is the most logical economic option from the corporations’ offering skills development and long-term employment.
perspective, even though it results in higher labor costs. In Those who are conscious of the situation tacitly avoid
such circumstances and with corporate results getting thinking about it through the belief that there is nothing
worse, the only methods open to corporations seeking to they can do to change it.
adjust their employment levels are to shuffle employees If the trend toward young people living with their par-
J U N E 2 0 0 0 55
ents really is gathering momentum, it is not because of psy- in Japan, however, except in business-to-business dealings.
chological problems like a lack of an independent spirit or The equivalent everyday word “promise” is used instead.
an unwillingness to work. Rather, it is the product of a so- Rather than transplanting the Western concept of con-
cial and economic structure that encourages middle-aged tracts, it is important for Japan to build a society where
people to continue in their jobs and keeps their wages high. keeping promises is considered important.
The generous structural reforms that are being under- In Europe and the United States, people’s different lin-
taken for the benefit of elderly people to cope with soci- guistic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds increase the risk
ety’s rapid aging are putting the fewer and fewer young of misunderstanding. The concept of contracts, therefore,
people at an increasing disadvantage. The Ministry of has developed within a structure based on a presupposi-
Labor is encouraging the development of a consensus that tion of what may be termed “distrust.” Promises, on the
the retirement age should be extended to 65. As the massed other hand, are based on “trust.” Promises join partners
ranks of today’s middle-aged workers grow older, calls for who trust or wish to trust each other. Partners in love or
the complete abolition of mandatory retirement will marriage do not make contracts. A promise is the strongest
become stronger. With the aging of society already well possible bond between two people.
underway, the need to maintain a work environment con- What would happen if more and more adults through-
ducive to older people has become the accepted wisdom. out Japanese society were desensitized to the guilt caused
But we must not forget that a blanket extension or aboli- by breaking promises? At great cost, the punishments and
tion of the mandatory retirement age would increase the rules for maintaining the social fabric would have to be
power of older workers’ vested interests and further rob strengthened. On the other hand, the risk of guilt caused
young people of employment opportunities. by breaking promises made between corporations and in-
To avoid making vested employment interests even dividuals could help to build a free and unrestrained society.
stronger, we need to make wage adjustments more appro- Adults today bemoan the fact that young people have
priate while at the same time reviewing the right to dismiss lost interest in politics and the economy. As can be seen
workers. The interests of older workers have until now from politicians’ flip-flops over such issues as premiums
been protected through restrictions on dismissal and the under the new public Long-Term Care Insurance system
seniority system, but we need to change this. Otherwise we and the system of guarantees for bank deposits, however,
will not solve the problems of youth employment. adults themselves are all too willing to break promises they
This does not mean encouraging excessive or across- once made with society. In this context it is hardly surpris-
the-board wage cuts or allowing corporations to fire work- ing that young people grow up with little interest in polit-
ers at will. Rather, it means that corporations should seize ical and economic affairs.
the opportunity of reviewing wage structures and staff or- How can we instill in young hearts and minds the im-
ganizations to fundamentally alter their relationships with portance of keeping one’s word? First, by spending time at
individual workers. home and at school teaching children the value of observ-
To achieve this it is necessary to put in place a new set ing promises. Even more important than that, however, is
of arrangements linking corporations and individuals. the time children spend playing with friends. The way
Objective and consistent standards must be formulated to that children naturally learn the importance of keeping
clarify job content, degrees of responsibility and discretion, promises is through having and playing with friends. That
skill development, and remuneration in ways that are is why play is considered so important for children.
understandable to outsiders. I think that both corporations In the 1990s mobile phones removed some of the guilt
and individual employees should try to stick to these ar- of being late for meetings with friends. The development
rangements once they are made, but we should also build of such means of communication as mobile phones and
new ways to review remuneration and break off employ- e-mail has undoubtedly made daily life and business more
ment relations in cases where, for some reason, either side convenient. At the same time, however it has also compro-
is not satisfied. mised people’s awareness of the importance of keeping
CONTRACTS VS. PROMISES
Implementing education that respects individuality
and makes the rest of the world judge that “Japanese peo-
What should be done in order to make such arrangements ple are unique” is all well and good, as is reversing the de-
run smoothly? It is important to avoid the moral hazard of cline in children’s math skills and gaining the reputation
a situation in which corporations can profit by intention- that “Japanese people are logical.” But surely we could de-
ally violating their agreements with workers. It is also im- rive much greater pride and confidence from being trusted
portant for workers to stick to their side of the bargain. by others because “Japanese people keep their promises.”
Some would say that this means Japan should become a
contract society in the style of Europe and the United
States. They would suggest that regulations governing such Translated from “Parasaito shinguru no iibun,” in Chûô
issues as wages and employment should be contract-based. Kôron, April 2000, pp. 180–88; abridged by about one-
The word “contract” is not generally used in everyday life fourth. (Courtesy of Chûô Kôron Shinsha)
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