Members of the “employment ice age generation” graduated from high school or university from around 1993 to 2004, when it was extremely hard for new graduates to find regular full-time work as businesses cut back on hiring following the collapse of the bubble boom and the subsequent financial industry crisis. Now in their mid-30s to mid-40s, more members of this generation remain stuck in unstable irregular jobs and earn less than their older counterparts. Concern is mounting that as they enter retirement age, large numbers of this generation could face poverty with low or no pension benefits and be forced to rely on welfare support, putting greater pressure on the social security system.

The government has compiled a draft measure to help members of this generation get better paying regular full-time jobs. The reported draft seeks to provide intensive support to about 1 million members of the ice age generation who are particularly needy — with the ambitious goal of having 300,000 of them land regular full-time jobs within three years by providing job counseling and practical training programs.

Officials may assume that given the current severe manpower shortage it would be easier now for members of that generation to find more stable jobs with better conditions. Still, it appears the action is being taken too late as many of the older members of the ice age generation have endured hardships for more than two decades now and missed opportunities to acquire sufficient job skills and career experience. It’s not clear whether the planned measure will change the tendency of businesses to prioritize the hiring of younger workers fresh out of school for full-time positions. Steady and long-term efforts must be made to support this generation.

The draft program calls on prefectural governments to work with businesses and industry organizations to improve the employment and working conditions of the ice age generation. Private sector firms with know-how in employment support will be commissioned to offer training for people holding irregular jobs to make the transition to regular full-time status. In cooperation with sectors suffering from labor shortages such as transport and construction, support will be provided for the workers to quickly obtain relevant job-related licenses.

In 2000 — at the height of the employment ice age — as many as 120,000 youths are estimated to have graduated from high school or university without finding a job, compared with just 20,000 in this year’s “seller’s market.” The ratio of job offers to job seekers among university graduates, which had peaked at 2.86 in 1991, plunged below 1 among the graduates of the year 2000 — compared with 1.83 for 2020 graduates.

In addition to the economy’s prolonged downturn, members of the ice age generation were also affected by a policy that promoted irregular jobs as companies turned more to an “expendable” workforce and reduced their hiring of regular full-time employees. Large numbers of these people had to take irregular jobs because full-time positions were not available. While many of them continued to hold these unstable jobs for years, others were thrown out of work and not a few of them turned into hikikomori (recluses). The ice age generation’s financial problems are also considered to have contributed to the nation’s low fertility rate — since many youths with unstable jobs and low income are believed to have hesitated to marry and start families.

Even today, more members of the ice age generation hold irregular jobs and earn less than their older counterparts. It’s estimated that as of 2018, nearly 3.7 million people aged between 35 and 44 work as part-timers, term-contract workers or temporary dispatch staff — more than 20 percent of the entire generation. Of these workers, 500,000 are believed to hold irregular jobs unwillingly because they could not find regular full-time jobs even if they wished to. Even as wage levels gradually picked up and businesses increased hiring of full-time workers amid the economic boom cycle in recent years, many members of this generation have been left behind.

Also behind the plight of the ice age generation is the widespread practice among Japanese firms to place priority on the mass hiring of fresh graduates to fill their labor needs under the still prevalent lifetime employment system and seniority-based wages and promotion. Under this practice, people who failed to be hired as regular employees as new graduates often find it tough to find full-time jobs in subsequent attempts, while companies tend to shy away from hiring as full-timers people who have held irregular jobs for a long time or those who are more advanced in age. Efforts to help improve the working conditions of the ice age generation should involve changing such employment practices.

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