The number of NEETs (people Not in Employment, Education or Training) now totals 640,000 people in Japan, according to a government white paper released in July. At the current rate of increase, NEETs may approach a million within five years, becoming a significant social problem that the government has yet to fully address.

When the term was first imported to Japan from Britain, the government, along with much of the media, used it with the implication that young people were simply unwilling to work. However, the latest increase shows that economic factors have more impact than the laziness, moral laxity or antisocial attitudes of those who don’t seek jobs. The cause is a complex mix of economic forces, hiring practices and workplace conditions rather than a bad attitude in a new generation. The youth bashing of the past may be a distraction from examining the real problems, but is not a solution.

Certainly, a percentage of NEETs have been spoiled by their parents, suffer from psychological problems or do not like the rigid demands of Japanese workplaces. As traditional models of employment evolve and change, workers must still learn to adapt to the workplace. The NEETs do need to grow up, but then, so do many workplaces. A couple years on a dead-end “freeter” job can make it impossible to even apply for many positions and, yet, giving up on work altogether suggests that the person has an immature view of the world.

Companies must offer better, more flexible hiring practices and improve conditions to fit various kinds of workers. The one-size-fits-all concept of the past does not tap many workers’ potential contributions. Practical steps such as youth support stations, better recruitment from high school, and expanded vocational and occupational education inside schools are urgently needed. The major rift in trust between workers and workplaces can only be solved by initiatives on all sides.

The government is keen on reintegrating NEETs mainly for increasing productivity and bolstering the social security system for an aging society. However, the issue is not just about money and the larger social good. The government and companies need to help NEETs to constructively pursue fuller lives made rich by work, participation and engagement. Until that happens, the talent, skill and energy of 640,000 people will continue to be wasted.

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