What happens to a generation of young people when:
They are told to work hard and go to college, yet after graduating they find few permanent job opportunities?
Many of the jobs that are available are part-time, temporary or contract labor?
These insecure jobs pay one-third of what their fathers earned?
The low pay makes living at home the only viable option?
Poor economic conditions persist for 10, 15 and 20 years in a row?
For an answer, turn to Japan. The world's second-largest economy has stagnated in just this fashion for almost 20 years, and the consequences for the "lost generations" that have come of age in the "lost decades" have been dire. In many ways, Japan's social conventions are fraying under the relentless pressure of an economy in
seemingly permanent decline.
While the world sees Japan as the home of consumer technology juggernauts such as Sony and Toshiba and high-tech "bullet trains" (shinkansen), beneath the bright lights of Tokyo and the evident wealth generated by decades of hard work and Japan Inc.'s massive global export machine lies a different reality: increasing poverty and decreasing opportunity for the nation's youth.
Suddenly, It's Haves and Have Nots
The gap between extremes of income at the top and bottom of society -- measured by the Gini coefficient -- has been growing in Japan for years. To the surprise of many outsiders, once-egalitarian Japan is becoming a nation of haves and have-nots.
The media in Japan have popularized the phrase "kakusa shakai," literally meaning "gap society." As the elite slice prospers and younger workers are increasingly marginalized, the media has focused on the shrinking middle class. For example, a best-selling book offers tips on how to get by on an annual income of less than 3 million yen ($34,800). Two million yen ($23,000) has become the de-facto poverty line for millions of Japanese, especially outside high-cost Tokyo.
More than one-third of the workforce is part-time as companies have shed the famed Japanese lifetime employment system, nudged along by government legislation that abolished restrictions on flexible hiring a few years ago. Temp agencies have expanded to fill the need for contract jobs as permanent job opportunities have dwindled.
Many fear that as the generation of salaried baby boomers dies out, the country's economic slide might accelerate. Japan's share of the global economy has fallen below 10% from a peak of 18% in 1994. Were this decline to continue, income disparities would widen and threaten to pull this once-stable society apart.
Downsized Expectations, Opting Out
The Japanese term ''freeter'' is a hybrid word that originated in the late 1980s, just as Japan's property and stock market bubbles reached their zenith. It combines the English ''free'' and the German ''arbeiter,'' or worker, and describes a lifestyle that's radically different from the buttoned-down rigidity of the permanent-employment economy: freedom to move between jobs. This absence of loyalty to a company is totally alien to previous generations of driven Japanese "salarymen'' who were expected to uncomplainingly turn in 70-hour work weeks at the same company for decades, all in exchange for lifetime employment.
Many young people have come to mistrust big corporations, having seen their fathers or uncles eased out of ''lifetime'' jobs in the relentless downsizing of the past 20 years. From the point of view of the younger generations, the loyalty their parents unstintingly gave to companies was wasted.
The freeters have also come to see diminishing value in the grueling study and tortuous examinations required to compete for the elite jobs in academia, industry and government. With opportunities fading, long years of study are perceived as pointless. In contrast, the freeter lifestyle is one of hopping between short-term jobs and devoting energy and time to foreign travel, hobbies or other interests.
As long ago as 2001, Japan's Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare estimated that 50% of high school graduates and 30% of college graduates quit their jobs within three years of leaving school. The downside is permanently shrunken income and prospects. These trends have led to an ironic moniker for the freeter lifestyle: dame-ren (no good people). The dame-ren get by on odd jobs, low-cost living and drastically diminished expectations.
The decline of permanent employment has also led to the unraveling of social mores and conventions. The young men who reject their fathers' macho work ethic are derisively called "herbivores" or "grass-eaters" because they're uncompetitive and uncommitted to work.
Take the bestselling book The Herbivorous Ladylike Men Who Are Changing Japan, by Megumi Ushikubo, president of Infinity, a Tokyo marketing firm. Ushikubo claims that about two-thirds of all Japanese men aged 20-34 are now partial or total "grass-eaters." "People who grew up in the bubble era [of the 1980s] really feel like they were let down. They worked so hard and it all came to nothing," says Ushikubo. "So the men who came after them have changed."
This has spawned a disconnect between genders so pervasive that Japan is experiencing a "social recession" in marriage, births and even sex, all of which are declining.
With a wealth and income divide widening along generational lines, many young Japanese are attaching themselves to their parents. Surveys indicate that roughly two-thirds of freeters live at home. Freeters ''who have no children, no dreams, hope or job skills could become a major burden on society, as they contribute to the decline in the birthrate and in social insurance contributions,'' Masahiro Yamada, a sociology professor wrote in a magazine essay titled, ''Parasite Singles Feed on Family System.''
Take My Son, Please
"Parasite singles" is yet another harsh term for some Japanese youths. It refers to those who never leave home, sparking an almost tragicomical countertrend of Japanese parents who actively seek mates to marry off their "parasite single" offspring as the only way to get them out of the house.
Even more extreme is hikikomori, or "acute social withdrawal," a condition in which the young live-at-home person nearly walls himself off from the world by never leaving his room. Though acute social withdrawal in Japan affect both genders, impossibly high expectations for males from middle- and upper-middle-class families has led many sons, typically the eldest, to refuse to leave home. The trigger for this complete withdrawal from social interaction is often one or more traumatic episodes of social or academic failure. That is, the inability to meet standards of conduct and success that can no longer be met in diminished-opportunity Japan.
The unraveling of Japan's social fabric as a result of eroding economic conditions for young people offers Americans a troubling glimpse of the high costs of long-term economic stagnation.