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Office ladies, our fresh-faced saviors

by Michael Hoffman

Slowly the nation wakes from its nightmare. Tokyo Disneyland reopens. A semblance of normality returns, at least to areas outside the stricken zone.

It’s April. Catastrophe does not stop the cherry trees from blooming; nor can it dampen a certain charged atmosphere that permeates corporate life every year around this time. It’s spring. People start new jobs. There are fresh faces in the office, among them those of newly-minted “OLs” (office ladies). The consternation they cause is partly erotic, partly philosophical. How to approach them? Not that they’re unapproachable, but the very young are so inscrutably mysterious! What are they thinking? What do they want out of life? It’s a perplexity that infects office veterans not so very much older themselves, so rapid is generational change.

Spa!, tracker for decades of the young generation, offers some incisive observations. Today’s 23-year-old freshman OL would have been 3 in 1991, the year Japan’s economy started to run out of gas. At 9, she would have been aware of a ghastly and senseless crime that seemed to spawn others and signify a national descent into moral chaos — the murder in Kobe of two small children by a 14-year-old boy.

Turning 15 in 2003, she would have noted — along with the start of the Iraq War and the iPod’s advent — the sinking of the employment rate for new college graduates to an anemic 55 percent. Otaku culture, the escape of a thwarted generation into manga, anime and video-game fantasy, reached its zenith soon afterwards. By her 18th birthday the kakusa shakai — a society marked by a widening gap between rich and poor — had decisively deposed the relative egalitarianism of the recent past.

Hers were not the best of times to grow up in, though they may not have been the worst of times either. Another notable development that marked (some say scarred) her generation was the educational reform known as yutori kyoiku, an easing of school curricula in response to criticism that exam pressure on students was intolerable and psychologically damaging. Later blamed for a perceived “dumbing down,” the measure was scrapped in 2007.

What sort of personality have circumstances like these nurtured? Spa! focuses on young women (its article is in the form of advice to male employees keen either to seduce the new OLs or, as their office superiors, to maximize their productivity) and finds them not so much disillusioned as having never had any illusions to begin with. If they are not as vivacious and full of life as their mothers and older sisters were at their age, they are not depressed either. They have no overpowering desires, and no crushing anxieties. They are selfish, but in a low-key, unassuming sort of way. Their expectations are low. Everything they’ve lived through seems to mock the old truism about effort earning its due reward.

So they shrug their shoulders and spare the effort. They seek neither prestigious careers nor high salaries. They’re content just to get by. Brand-name goods, high-class restaurants, carefree sex in luxury hotels leave them cold. Those were the indulgences of the bubble economy, long past and, it seems, unlamented. Pleasure beyond a certain point seems to them more wearying than fulfilling. “My boyfriend and I have sex once a month or so,” says one of the new OLs Spa! speaks to. “It’s enough.”

A catchy neologism has emerged to characterize this toned-down attitude toward life — setsuden, literally “saving electricity,” grimly appropriate in view of the necessity lately placed on all of us. But it’s interesting, this new willingness, even eagerness, on the part of young people to live within limits. It’s too early to say, but it might prefigure a whole new definition of happiness — maybe, in the long run, a better one.

It’s a strange kind of poverty the bursting of the bubble has imposed on those now entering adulthood. Poor in job opportunities, poor in disposable income, they are nonetheless rich, as no previous generation has been, in terms of technological empowerment.

Back in 1887, a now more or less forgotten American writer named Edward Bellamy wrote a utopian novel called “Looking Backward.” “It appears to me,” his protagonist observes, “that if we could have devised an arrangement for providing everybody with music in their homes, perfect in quality, unlimited in quantity, suited to every mood and beginning and ceasing at will, we should have considered the limit of human felicity already attained, and ceased to strive for further improvements.”

So there we were, “the limit of human felicity already attained.” Unfortunately, we failed to “cease to strive for further improvements.” We piled improvement upon improvement, never realizing the brave new world we were building until we found ourselves living in it, bearing and raising children who know no other world and for whom getting together with friends is more likely than not to mean logging on to a social-networking site — to the point, as Spa! notes, that the setsuden generation’s “best friends are people they’ve never met in ‘real’ space.” That’s another defining aspect of the lives of the new OLs. May their newfound appreciation of limits save them — and us.