The end of the high-growth period and of the go-go bubble years has brought both new opportunities and great uncertainty as the old social system based on lifetime employment crumbles and even the outlines of its successor system remain hazy. Such uncertainty no doubt played a role in propelling novelist Ryu Murakami’s occupational guide “13 Sai no Hello Work” to best-sellerdom recently.

Murakami’s new book “Jinsei ni Okeru Seikosha no Teigi to Joken (The Definition and Conditions of Being a Success in Life)” looks at the changing nature of success in interviews with architect Tadao Ando, scientist Susumu Tonegawa, CEO Carlos Ghosn, Professor Kuniko Inoguchi, and soccer player Hidetoshi Nakata.

Murakami notes that the effective end of lifetime employment might be forcing changes in values, but that language and concepts lag behind. So people may, for example, be slow to change their negative view of risk or to notice the hollowing out of futsu (typical) or seikosha (successful person): There is no longer a “typical high-school girl” or “typical salaryman”; no longer a sure path to being a “success,” or even agreement as to exactly what constitutes success in life.

He believes that, along with work, the future shape of the family is up in the air, with a weakening of the belief that one has to marry and have children to be happy. Instead, some sort of small kyodotai (community) will be essential — one of mutual trust, shared confidences and of refuge from the world, whether it be a couple living together, a close network of friends, or a tight group of co-workers at an nonprofit organization.

Judging from reports in the media, it seems that older people whose children are out of the nest or young people without family responsibilities who are making changes in their lives, while those in the middle are grimly hanging on in this time of transition, trying not to be restructured out of a secure job.

More and more magazines are being aimed at relatively well-off seniors, like “Otona no Shumatsu (Weekends for Mature Adults),” “Jiyujin (Free Individuals),” “Otona no Walker,” and “Off,” while a special issue of Aera (Oct. 15) is devoted to “Happy Turn Jinsei” and selecting a job for the “second half” of one’s life. The latter provided 50 cases of people, largely in their 50s and 60s, 16 female and 34 male, who have successfully embarked on new directions in their lives. Many fulfilled a long-held dream to, for instance, open an antique shop or grow grapes, but others made even more dramatic changes. High-school teacher Kunikazu Furubayashi (now 57) moved to Vietnam, where he teaches Japanese and writes, while Kazumasa Nakamura Kazumasa (54) quit his job at a computer company, where he was working from early morning to 1 a.m., to live in the mountains with his wife and become a craftsman making kaleidoscopes.

Among the younger generation, on the other hand, estimates are that as many as one in five are rejecting the traditional path of being full-time regular employees (seishain) and choosing life as a furita (free worker), doing temporary or part-time jobs, mainly in sales or the service sector. A rising number of newly hired graduates are also quitting jobs as seishain after relatively short periods of time.

It seems clear that many young people want a more flexible and balanced working life than that of their parents. However it is less clear that being a free worker is the answer. As the Yomiuri Weekly (Oct. 3) dramatically puts it, free workers are unwittingly buying freedom at the cost of a loss of lifetime earnings of 200 million yen, compared with the average lifetime earnings of regular employees.

In think-tank analyst Shun Maruyama’s recent book “Frita Bokoku Ron (Free workers and the Ruin of the Nation),” Japan is moving to a new dual structure of low-paid and insecure free worker vs. well-paid and secure seishain. If the situation continues unchanged, there is a danger of a division into poor free-worker grasshoppers enjoying life, and prosperous but overworked seishain ants.

Maruyama also points out that becoming a free worker is not always a matter of personal choice; the “lost decade” from 1992-2002 for Japanese business after the collapse of the bubble was also a lost chance at regular employment for the new graduates of those years, as companies cut back on hiring new employees rather than laying off older ones (who under Japan’s system stood little chance of finding a job elsewhere). Although free workers are often criticized as being lazy or self-indulgent, the role of companies in exploiting them as a source of cheap and disposable labor tends to be overlooked.

Maruyama is particularly concerned about the future costs for both free workers as individuals and Japanese society as a whole. In the short term, free workers can help company balance sheets, but in the long term they will be a drag on the economy as their low incomes mean less consumer spending, tax revenues, payments into health insurance and pension programs, and savings. Free workers will find it difficult financially to marry and support a household, much less care for aging parents.

Maruyama’s hope is for a move toward a more diverse and flexible employment system. Then there will be a better work/life balance, a society in which people can be both ants and grasshoppers, depending on the situation.

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