December is back again with a vengeance. It rained last night and this morning was the start of a very cold and grey day. I could hear the rain beating against the roof, and I curled up in bed and pulled the covers back over my head. Thankfully I got to work from home today, and I rolled over and slept for another hour…
Normally at this time of year I’m all ready to head into the year-end slowdown. There is a lot of activity for the first few weeks of the month, as people try to close out any outstanding business and gradually things wind down to a close. The foreign managers all head back home for the Christmas and New Years holidays, and soon even the emails from overseas slow down to a trickle and the weekly calls grind to a halt for a few weeks. The Bonenkai (year end parties) start up a well. I’m already slated to attend three or four, and that doesn’t even count the unofficial ones with friends and co-workers. Aside from Golden Week in May, this time of year is one of my favorite times to be in Tokyo.
But this week I’ve been watching with a great deal of curiosity the annual ramp-up of the job-hunting season for third year university students across Japan, which also coincidentally starts in the first week of December. The Nikkei has had a interesting series of articles documenting the process, and I’ve found it fascinating to read. Working in foreign companies as I have for virtually all of my time here in Japan, I’ve never had a deep understanding of what most of the workforce has to go through to get that first job after university; following it in the press this week has been a real education for me.
The first thing that seemed strange to me was the timing of it all: job hunting (known here by the term, “Shu katsu” 就活 – “employment activities”) typically starts in the second semester of the junior year. This means that if you don’t get a job offer by the end of your junior year (and most people do not!), you wind up spending one and a half hears trying to get hired.
And this year, some argue, is an improvement to the past. Previously the season started earlier, but then pressure was put on companies to start later in the year so that students could concentrate on their studies more. In the end a compromise was made to change the starting date from October to December – a two month delay. But with this change, students, schools, everyone really, now simply feels even more pressure to rush headlong through the process at an even more breakneck pace: to gather more information, attend more seminars, and get in front of as many recruiters as possible, now that the starting line has been moved back and there is less time. And the idea of getting more time to focus on studies? Gone. I read a story the other day that said that nearly half of all university students spend less than two or three hours a week doing homework. All the education now happens in the classroom; self-study is a thing of the past, let alone struggling to figure something out on your own.
Why all the stress about getting a job? For one thing it’s simply tougher now than it has been in previous years to get that first job, especially since the Great Recession of 2008. Employment opportunities for young people are harder to come by everywhere in the developed countries; in places like Spain or the inner cities of the US nearly half of adults in their 20′s don’t have jobs. But also, simply put, the employment market in Japan is not as liquid as it is in other countries. That means it’s harder to change jobs once you have one. People here tend to want to stay at one place for as long as they can, and those who decide to change jobs find out that they are met with suspicion once they do. So it’s all the more important to get the right first one. Someone I know compared getting the first job here to an arranged marriage versus a co-habitation. The idea is to try and live happily ever after, or at least look like it – you just don’t divorce.
This all worked well in the decades after the Second World War, when the economy was booming, the population was young and growing and there were plenty of manufacturing jobs to be had. However, the conditions have now changed dramatically. For starters, like everywhere else, the economy is still not going so well. Second, population growth is flat, and set to start declining soon. Making the demographic situation worse is the fact that the number of young adults is now starting to decline. On average for the past decade or so about 1.3 million people graduated from high school each year. Around half of this population has traditionally gone on to four-year universities, and another 25% goes on to some sort of two-year college (junior college, vocation college, etc.). That means that nearly 75% of all high-school graduates have gone on to some sort of tertiary education. When all is said and done, this means that about half a million new graduates enter the workforce annually. While all of this is impressive, on average about 30% of them won’t get full-time jobs. Some will go to grad school and try the job market again in a few years, but others will just be out of luck.
In the past it didn’t matter so much if these graduates spent little to no time on their studies in their final years, because virtually everyone got an offer and the companies spent much of their time training them for the first year or so anyway, rotating them to a number of jobs so they could learn the ropes and become generalists in their new families for life. But as the world gets more complicated and the vaunted lifetime employment breaks down (and actually it never applied to the majority of the workforce anyway), it’s becoming more important to have some clear idea of what it is you want to do with your life, and some sort of skills to take you in that direction. And even more important, it’s essential to have the ability to adapt; to discard knowledge that proves to be no longer useful and acquire new skills as needed; and to be self-directed and do all of this on your own without being told.
However, the unfortunate truth is that to a large extent, many institutions in Japan still do not want to accept these new realities, because it’s too easy to keep things as they are or too hard to tell the difficult truths. For instance, many students probably shouldn’t graduate, but with the overcapacity of colleges and their over-reliance on tuition as the main source of income, it’s too difficult to crack down on academic standards without significant reductions in infrastructure (i.e. colleges and professors). Similarly, many companies need to rethink their business models and figure out what they need to do to re-invent themselves so they can compete globally once again but this too means some painful decisions. There are a lot of very smart individuals in Japan, and a lot of the answers are already out there, but there is still an incredible amount of interia to keep things the way they’ve always been. But after a generation or so of miraculous growth and one of the greatest economic success stories ever, it’s hard to argue with success, right?
At least until it stops being successful…