Japan takes steps to help those trapped in 'employment ice age'

Pedestrians make their way in a business district in Japan on May 16, 2018. The raft of measures planned includes vocational training and grants for local governments that hire these people.
Pedestrians make their way in a business district in Japan on May 16, 2018. The raft of measures planned includes vocational training and grants for local governments that hire these people.PHOTO: REUTERS

Measures to ease social problems include work training and grants

Fewer births, social withdrawal and a growing strain on its pension system are among the social problems that Japan has traced to the bust of the economic asset bubble in the early 1990s, and the subsequent period of stagnation called the "Lost Decade".

In a bid to ease these issues, Japan pledged last week to spend 65 billion yen (S$805 million) in the next three years to help 300,000 people of the so-called "employment ice age generation" land full-time jobs.

The group is defined loosely as those aged 35 to 44 who left school between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, were unable to get permanent jobs, and ended up flitting from one low-wage, dead-end part-time job to another.

The raft of measures planned includes vocational training and grants for local governments that hire these people.

Economic Revitalisation Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said: "The problems faced by the employment ice age generation are important issues that should not be a burden borne only by themselves or their families but by society as a whole."

Sociologists said this group's precarious employment and low incomes have left them with bare-bone savings which, in turn, have resulted in fewer marriages and children, and a rise in hikikomori (social recluses) who live off their parents.

Japan expects 2019 to have ended with only 864,000 newborns, a drastic drop of nearly 6 per cent from 2018 and a record low since the start of birth records in 1899.

University of Tsukuba psychologist Tamaki Saito, who studies social withdrawal issues, said many hikikomori were forced into their shells by oppressive circumstances such as bullying, harassment and unemployment.

As a result, they feel dispirited and diffident about taking on new challenges, he said.

  • $805m

    How much Japan has pledged to spend in the next three years to help the 300,000 hikikomori or people of the so-called "employment ice age generation".

    >2m

    Estimated number of hikikomori in Japan. While not all are from the "employment ice age generation", they could put further pressure on the social security system as they are likely to live on welfare after their parents die.

Dr Saito said there may be more than two million hikikomori in Japan. While not all are from the "employment ice age generation", they could put further pressure on the social security system as they are likely to live on welfare after their parents die, he added.

The government, in acknowledging these possible eventualities, has called for a major paradigm shift among employers accustomed to hiring fresh graduates whom they can train and mould from scratch.

In a first for the central government, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare said last week it will hire 10 people from the "employment ice age generation" for policy planning roles from May.

Human resource firm Pasona Group also said last month that it will hire 300 people, from April, for the firm's regional revitalisation projects.

Employed under the company's Middles Be Ambitious programme, they will undergo six months of training, and be paid between four million yen and six million yen yearly in jobs such as sales promotion, facility management and design.

The shift is taking place amid a chronic labour shortage in Japan's tightest job market in decades.

 
 

The unemployment rate was 2.2 per cent in November, and government data last week showed there were 157 job openings for every 100 job seekers.

Experts, however, noted several flaws in the government's policy.

They asked if it was no more than a stopgap measure to plug the immediate job market demand, and whether these relatively inexperienced workers were expendable the moment the business environment worsens.

Dr Emi Kataoka of Komazawa University in Tokyo told The Straits Times: "It seems merely a policy that is a pressure relief valve for employment.

"Unless there is proper support to train the affected workers with an eye on long-term employment, there is a high risk they will end up in low-demand jobs such as nursing care or construction."

The experts also suggested the 300,000 target may be too low, as official estimates show there are as many as three million people in the "employment ice age generation".

As it is, 2018 official data showed 21.2 million people to be "irregular" workers, or about 37.9 per cent of Japan's workforce.

 
 

Mr Yukio Okubo, director of think-tank Recruit Works Institute, told Nikkei Business magazine: "Rather than focusing on a single generation, giving opportunities for everyone who has not had the chance to skill up should be at the centre of the debate."

He added: "Forcing employment is the wrong policy. Without skills, people cannot get motivated and perform well in the work they are expected to do. This just leads to a downward spiral."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 01, 2020, with the headline 'Japan takes steps to help those trapped in 'employment ice age''. Print Edition | Subscribe