Increased longevity means that lifetime employment isn’t lasting the distance
THE Institute of Social Human Capital in Tokyo is an unusual sort of business-training school. Those who attend it (two-thirds are men) have mostly quit or taken redundancy packages from big Japanese firms, and are trying to start again. Shedding the habits of a lifetime begins by breaking down barriers: former salarymen laugh nervously as they share a bento-box lunch with strangers, blindfolded (the idea is that they must use their other four senses to communicate).
The way to prepare them for a second career is to get them interacting as individuals, not as corporate workers or business partners, says Matsuhiko Ozawa, a director of the Institute, which specialises in this sort of course. In a country that sets great store by formal introductions, the students have not even exchanged business cards. Names, titles and personal information are banned (the ex-salarymen use made-up names) to avoid reproducing the old office hierarchies that exist outside the classroom. “We start from scratch and help these people find themselves again,” says Mr Ozawa.
For years, the salarymen rode a career escalator that rewarded them less for skills than for loyalty and doggedly hard work. Though often attributed to centuries-old Japanese traditions of duty, the salaryman system was a post-1945 creation, says Naohiro Yashiro, a former adviser on economic policy to Shinzo Abe, the prime minister. During the post-war boom years, firms took on workforces of permanent employees, who were hired for life. All that was needed to get paid more was to grow older.
In return, the employers’ extravagant demands had to be met. Salarymen could not refuse a transfer—often at a few days’ notice—to a subsidiary hundreds of miles from home. Children grew up largely without fathers. Work, rather than family, was the main supplier of emotional support. Full-time Japanese employees still clock 400 more hours per year than their counterparts in Germany or France, according to Kazuya Ogura, a labour specialist at Waseda University in Tokyo.
The salaryman remains stubbornly dug in across most industries. Mr Abe has promised as part of his growth-boosting reforms to give more rights to those at the bottom of the hierarchy—part-time and temporary workers with much lower pay—but has stopped short of radical steps, such as legislation to make firms give equal pay for equal work. Even so, for many, lifetime employment is ending earlier than it used to, because lots of companies cannot afford such workers all the way to retirement. Many are surplus to requirements in declining industries such as consumer electronics, and can be hard to retrain. The system worked well when people lived until around 70, says Mr Ozawa, but many firms are now offering permanent employees generous packages to leave early.
Many more leave voluntarily. Hiroyuki Ito, a student at the Institute, stepped off the salaryman escalator at the age of 45, after 23 years at his firm. He quit because the work was boring. “You don’t get to take risk or have adventure,” he says. He now attends the Tokyo school—there are several like it in Japan—and hopes for a second career as a teacher. The retraining takes time. Ex-salarymen usually come twice a week for five months to shed their old mindset. After decades of monotonous overwork, that must seem like the twinkling of an eye.
Source: The Economist - Dec 24, 2016 (Print Edition)