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For the young to get on board, Japan’s irksome business ways must change

by Roger Pulvers

Special To The Japan Times

“How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” is a satirical book by American writer Shepherd Mead that was a huge best-seller in 1952 before being made into a musical that premiered on Broadway nine years later. It tells the story of J. Pierrepont Finch, an ambitious young fellow who works his way up from window cleaner and mailroom sorter to president of a large company.

Well, if the findings of a new and crucial Japanese survey are correct, there may soon be a musical on stage in Tokyo titled, “How Not to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”

The main issue here is shusse kyohi, meaning “the refusal to get ahead.”

Is it true that young Japanese people are deliberately passing up promotion and no longer view themselves as “company men” and “company women”? Can it really be that they are not into delayed gratification but want it — whatever “it” is — all now?

According to statistics published by the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, a full one-third of company employees quit in or before their third year in the job. Are they rejecting previous generations’ dedication to the firm by being unwilling to sacrifice personal gratification in the interests of collective pride?

Nihon Keiei Kyokai, known in English as Nippon Omni-Management Association (NOMA), a Tokyo-based management consultancy established more than 40 years ago, and now with four branches from Kyushu to Hokkaido, has conducted its first survey on “the gap in the formation of professional awareness in young employees.”

What this “work-consciousness gap” deals with is made clear by a statement given by many young company workers: “It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”

The yawning gap — and “yawning” is an appropriate word, given the boredom of the office — is between their expectations when they were students of what a company career would be like and the gray realities of the workaday routine.

The survey, conducted by e-mail in June, with results published last month, received 700 replies from young people in their third year of company employment. It looked at job-satisfaction levels, attitudes toward their chosen profession, the development of skills … 19 areas in all.

When asked about motivation, 39.6 percent, the top figure, said they had wanted “to find a job that I want to do,” and chose the company they were at on that basis. But once landing the job, they could find only one positive thing about their choice, and that was “the atmosphere in the company and the interpersonal relations.” All other things about the job were seen as negatives.

Significantly, a similar number of respondents, about 40 percent, said they had no interest in promotion but criticized their companies for not making it a more attractive proposition.

Nearly 3 in 10 — 29.3 percent, to be exact — reported that the main reason why they stayed at their company was “to acquire the skills for a job change.” In the exact same vein, another 32.2 percent confessed they were only there “until I find a job with better conditions” or “until my next job.”

In short, more than 60 percent of young company employees surveyed were in a holding pattern until they could swoop down to greener pastures; and a full 40 percent of all respondents had already worked elsewhere.

A few more telling statistics from this rather astonishing survey.

When asked, “What’s most important to you about a job?” 68.7 percent replied, “It should be interesting.” The second-highest answer, at 59.1 percent (replies could be multiple), was, “I can grow in the job.”

If young employees are so keen on landing an interesting, fulfilling and personal-development-oriented job, why are they so unenthusiastic about climbing the corporate ladder?

When asked about this, they blamed their absence of enthusiasm for promotion on “the lack of ethics in the workplace, dishonesty and deplorable occurrences (fushōji) there” — 39.3 percent. What they desire to see is “a workplace where opinions can be voiced regardless of position” — 48.3 percent.

While the older generation might view these young people as lacking in their own macho-like ambition and “fight,” all it means is that the tectonics of priority have shifted. This should be seen as a positive phenomenon: Young people are deeply concerned about ethical compliance; about the moral actions, or inactions, of their company; and about the absence of democratic, merit-oriented discussion.

What they’re not saying is that they are scared of assuming responsibility. A careful reading of the NOMA survey shows they would accept the responsibility of executive management if they felt the work and its ethical bases were deserving of the extra effort.

In reality, it is no easy thing to decline a promotion in a company — though in the public service it can be refused for family- or health-related reasons. If the boss calls you into the office and offers you a promotion, your chances of refusing it without incurring punitive action — such as being moved to another less appealing section, or worse — are low.

In the survey, however, only 12.7 percent of respondents said they aspired to be president of their company. Of course, conventional Japanese modesty may be at work here. Saying you are not ambitious for a position may be the best strategy for bagging it.

Furthermore, what of the 37.4 percent who told NOMA that, “I don’t want a promotion”? Would they still risk punitive action by the company if they were also being pressured by a spouse or family to get a raise?

In the developed West, Generation Y — also called “Millennials” — are suffering high levels of unemployment or under-employment. People born roughly between 1983 and 2000, who most commentators would define as Generation Y, are heavily into lifestyle enhancement and instant digital gratification. To them, work may not constitute the be-all-and-end-all it was to earlier generations.

Japanese Millennials are no different, though business practices in Japan are still heavily hands-on, namecard-swapping, handshake-and-bow propositions.

The task now facing all young people in developed countries is this: How to turn the hunger of personal satisfaction into incentives for creating an innovative and profitable entrepreneurship?

No one could possibly fault Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg — or, for that matter, SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son or Uniqlo’s founder, Tadashi Yanai — for a dearth of ambition or stubborn hard work. Young people today will also work hard if they perceive their rewards to be compliant with their ethical and democratic ideals — and if they’re allowed to turn their individual gifts into commercially viable products and ideas.

In that sense, NOMA’s survey of young employees is not only one of the most significant and revealing polls of this type conducted in recent years, it also signals a clearly affirmative streak in Millennials’ attitudes.

If young people are disappointed by the grim realities of the workplace, then perhaps it is the latter that needs changing. They are asking themselves whether it’s worth it to “succeed” — since success is concomitant with moral compromise and the denigration of personal aspiration.

The song “The Company Way” in the musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” includes the lines: “I play it the company way / Wherever the company puts me, there I stay/ But what is your point of view?/ I have no point of view.”

Making it to the top may have been the supreme goal for J. Pierrepont Finch in the United States of two generations ago and the generation of Baby Boomers in Japan. But for young people in Japan now, personal satisfaction seems to be taking precedence.

How to turn this generation’s free choice into success for both its individual members and the whole of Japanese society is one of the most pressing issues facing this nation today.