The government is launching support measures for the “employment ice age generation” — the age group that graduated from school between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s and found it extremely hard to get decent jobs when businesses cut back on hiring following the collapse of the bubble boom. Officials have set a goal of helping 300,000 people in this generation, many of whom continue to hold low-paying, unstable jobs, land regular full-time positions over the next three years. However, government support will not be enough. The effort needs to include businesses changing hiring practices that have slammed the door on many people in this generation.

It is rare for the government to provide an intensive employment support program for a specific generation, but the effort is driven by a growing sense of crisis that these people — which include children of the post-World War II baby boomers and are relatively large in number (they were born when the nation still had 2 million new babies each year, more than double the current rate) — may pose a threat to the social security system when they join the ranks of the elderly, unless their conditions are improved now.

The government reportedly plans to offer job training and other intensive support for roughly 1 million people in this generation — now in their mid-30s to mid-40s — who are in especially dire situations. It will also promote the hiring of their ranks as national and local government employees.

In fact, some municipalities have started to offer mid-career full-time positions to people in this age group. However the combined number of these local government offers is way too small. When the municipal government in Takarazuka, Hyogo Prefecture, offered regular full-time jobs in August to people between the ages of 36 and 45, a whopping 1,653 people applied but only four were hired. The national government has not set a target number for hiring people in this generation as public workers.

When the ice age generation entered the job market, many companies were cutting back on new hires as the economy went downhill in the post-bubble bust and the subsequent financial industry crisis. The ratio of job openings to job-seeking university graduates, which hit a peak of 2.86 for the graduates of 1991, dipped below 1 for 2000 graduates (which has since recovered to 1.83 for 2020 graduates). In 2000, as many as 120,000 high school and university graduates left school without finding a job — compared with 20,000 this year.

Faced with tough prospects, many members of this generation had to take low-paying irregular jobs, becoming part-timers, term-contract workers and temporary dispatch staff, as businesses turned increasingly toward building an “expendable” workforce. Even today, many of these people reportedly continue to languish with unstable, irregular job statuses, earning less than their older counterparts did. The generation is also believed to include large numbers of people who have lost their jobs and become hikikomori (social recluses).

The emergence of the ice age generation is said to have exacerbated Japan’s demographic problems. The “second baby boomer” generation did not give rise to a third because many of them are believed to have given up marrying or having children because of their unstable employment conditions and poor income, and could not afford to start families. This accelerated the rapid aging of the population with ever fewer births today.

And as this age group grows older — they will start turning 65 two decades from now — a sense of crisis is building that large numbers of them will face dire financial conditions in retirement with little savings and low pension benefits, possibly living on welfare and adding more pressure to the already-strained social security system. That is driving the belated effort to improve their economic conditions before it’s too late.

The generation’s plight may have been triggered by the post-bubble bust, but it has also been exacerbated by a combination of various factors. When the economy went downhill, the postwar baby boomers had not yet reached retirement age, and the companies that offered lifetime employment for their employees had to cut back on new hires. The ice age generation that had to settle for unstable jobs had little opportunity to receive decent training and build skills and career experience, which further dampened their prospects for landing regular, higher-paying jobs. When the economy took a turn for the better after the turn of the century — and when many of the generation were still in their 20s — they were reportedly passed over as many companies put priority on the mass hiring of fresh graduates.

The government’s action may serve to highlight the problems surrounding this generation, but that alone won’t solve all of their problems. The private sector needs to reassess employment practices and increase their mid-career hiring of such people while there’s still time.

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