The traditional images of the Japanese “salaryman” and “office lady” are under threat from an unanticipated source: the young men and women expected to step into those roles. What some see as a crisis in Japan’s employment picture others recognize as a potentially lasting social change. The Labor Ministry has just revealed in an annual report that the number of young Japanese between the ages of 15 and 34 who choose to work part-time has increased threefold in the last decade and a half. The estimated total of 1.51 million young part-timers as of the end of 1997 marks an increase of 500,000 from five years earlier.

Yet the ministry fails to satisfactorily address the reasons. Senior members of the political and business establishments, members of an older generation, appear puzzled by this development in a country where finding a full-time, lifetime job was long considered the goal, particularly for university graduates. Today, however, many prefer to be what the young call “freeters,” a combination of the English word “free” with the German word for worker, “Arbeiter.” Since the concept of lifetime employment is fading, there would be less surprise if business leaders not only kept more fully abreast of rapidly changing social attitudes among the young, but also acknowledged their role in bringing them about.

Amid continuing economic uncertainty and growing job insecurity, more and more young Japanese are opting to work only enough hours to support their casual lifestyles. It helps, of course, if they live at home with their parents. For some youths today, the status once automatically associated with full-time employment at a major corporation is a thing of the past, a relic of their fathers’ generation. The bloom can wear off quickly when the full-time job involves long hours of “service” (unpaid) overtime and being discouraged from taking even the limited vacation time available.

The white paper points out that the number of high school graduates not continuing on to university and the numbers of all graduates not even trying to find full-time employment have been growing steadily since 1992. One out of three high school graduates and one out four university graduates were estimated to be “freeters” last year. A revealing statistic from the ministry’s figures for 1997 shows, however, that women outnumbered men among the part-timers by 900,000 to 610,000. In other words, while more young people are choosing the part-time path and many women prefer it because of family responsibilities, many of the latter have no other choice.

Despite strengthened workplace-equality legislation, part-time employment contracts are the only kind available to many women. Part-time workers are defined by the law as those who work fewer than 35 hours a week, yet many actually may be pressured into working just as many hours as regular employees despite receiving lower pay and greatly reduced benefits. The figure for all the nation’s part-time workers has doubled over the past decade to 11.38 million, representing 21.8 percent of the total workforce.

The ministry report claims that the work ethic is weakening among today’s youth. It says they are distancing themselves from society. Perhaps, but while there may be exceptions the reasons are not so simple and clear-cut as the selfish pursuit of hedonism. Orange hair, body piercings and tattoos are not encouraging signs in the eyes of prospective employers, but companies and Labor Ministry officials both need to look more closely at the causes for the changing attitudes toward work.

The ministry has also announced that a recent first-of-its-kind survey found that one out of every five white-collar workers here changes employers in midcareer. A year ago, the ministry was calling attention to the record numbers of university and junior college graduates who find employment but quit their jobs within three years. Some of these young people are due for a rude awakening, since the reason most give is simply that the work “did not suit” them. Many move into part-time jobs without even looking for another full-time position.

The dissatisfaction does not always last, however. While one-fourth of the recent graduates who choose part-time work say they are doing so for “self-fulfillment,” the white paper claims that two-thirds of part-timers ultimately hope for a full-time job but are unable to find one. The changing attitudes toward employment are not limited to young people. Companies eager to reduce their wage costs as they restructure have rushed to hire part-timers. Such workers will remain a bargain as long as Japan continues to refrain from ratifying the 1994 International Labor Organization convention that calls for equal treatment of full-time and part-time workers.

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