Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Getting Reacquainted with Japan's Workplace Frustration

Being a poor student at age 29 should not inspired this much envy.  If anything, a 29-year-old student should be the epitome of someone who is too old to be clueless about what to do with his/her life, at a golden age where careers are made or broke.  For anyone who genuinely cares about moving up the corporate ladder, it is not a desirable position to be in.  Yet, when conversations turn to the idea of being a 29-year-old student here in Japan, the general reaction among people of similar age has been one of "why can't I be a student now too?" coupled with discussions on the unglamorous daily grind of paid work.

And unglamorous work certainly is.  Complaints start from the moment one steps outside cramped apartments in the suburbs.  The push-and-shove in the commuter train is followed by more than an hour of face tightly thrown against the wall, uncomfortably immobile in the human heat wave of the tiny steel cages.  The workplace has way too much paperwork, some of which seem pointless even to the very people tasked with maintaining those processes.  After a day of processing paperwork as stipulated by strict and unchanging processes, one still has to look at superiors' faces before heading home.

The conclusion?  Going to work in a proper office really is not all that great, and it would be nice to not ever have to do that.  The alternative?  For the lucky some with specialized skills that can be accessed via a computer, home and remote office is a brilliant idea.  For those with special talents that can be harnessed, works of art and freelancing can be lucrative.  For those without either, student life, at whatever age one happens to be, still seem so attractive.  Whatever one can do, as long as one does not follow the routine of heading to boring office in a crowded train, everything seems to be better.

In essence, that envy toward academic life is not so much a desire to pursue knowledge at greater depth, but a want to escape from the harsh monotony of working life in Japan.  It is because working in an office is so unattractive, that everything else, including grinding away in the isolated ivy towers of universities to do research on some obscure topic that the general population hardly cares about, seems so attractive as a lifestyle.  The point is not so much that what students do are so fun and interesting, but that workers feel their own lives are so frustrating on a fundamental lifestyle level.

The frustration of Japanese workers toward their respective workplaces comes at time when the very desire to work hard among the youths have been gradually sapped in their desire to stay single and free from family commitments.  As the desire to earn more in stable environments become less and less important among the youths, increasingly the unattractive aspects of the Japanese workplace comes out front and center when they consider just exactly what kind of lives they would like to lead.  If being productive at the workplace become unimportant, so is the dedication toward corporate Japan.

It is an understatement to say that the frustration of its young workers is a big problem for corporate Japan.  As Japan gradually shift toward an economy that centers on high-tech innovation generated by myriads of flexible and nimble startups offering casual working environments (no suits! work at home days!), corporate giants that dominated the Japanese economy and were main sources of its employment for decades suddenly find themselves fighting for an ever-pickier and smaller group of young talents.  As startups offer more competitive wages along with better work-life balance, big corporations will increasingly find themselves on the losing side.

It is not all lost for the corporations, however.  The Japanese populace, taught from an age, in schools and homes, about the merits of collective obedience and social discipline, often craves the organized stable structure of big corporations (as much as they hate to admit it, they subliminally drift toward such places).  For many, the risky ups-and-downs of the startup world is simply too hard to stomach.  If big corporations can resolve some of their frustrations regarding their working lifestyles, many of these people will gladly embrace big companies once again.

How may such feat be achieved?  The first step is for corporations to test out startup-like environments as side projects to the main company.  While the main corporate structure would be hard to change, big corporations certainly have enough resources to create small subsidiaries that work and behave like startups.  As some of these startup-like projects prove to be sustainable and successful, more of the main company's youthful employees can be shifted to them, gradually increasing the proportion of company employees enjoying a more flexible and less frustrating work environment.  

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