Japan’s Workers Rethink Their Priorities Amid the Pandemic

TOKYO — Japan is in the midst of en masse hiring season, when a wave of college graduates join companies in formal ceremonies after sweating through the job-interview gantlet.

While this year’s ritual has a different look, with Covid-19 forcing many companies to scale back or go online, the goal has long been the same: to kick off what was often a lifetime devoted to one company. In exchange for long hours, personal sacrifices and a prescribed career path, employees would receive job security, a salary and status that rise with age, and the honor of contributing to corporate glory.

But this model that undergirded Japan’s economic rise is slowly eroding. Employers have been whittling away at the system for years, arguing that greater flexibility will improve competitiveness. And now, with the pandemic, pressure is building from the other side: Working from home, people have had more time to rethink their careers and lives. Many want a change.

For some, the objective is more say on when and where they work, as well as more autonomy and control over their careers. “Ikigai,” or purpose for living, has become a buzzword. Many people are prioritizing family, while others are seeking side jobs that better match their interests, something frowned upon by companies until recently.

Although Japan isn’t yet experiencing a U.S.-style “Great Resignation,” a growing number of workers are considering switching jobs — nearly nine million, government data show. And some are jumping ship, a risky and somewhat unusual step in Japan, especially for those in their 40s, 50s and 60s with stable jobs and families that rely on them.

Among young employees, the percentage who quit jobs at major companies within three years has risen to 26.5 percent from 20.5 percent eight years ago, according to a study by the Recruit Works Institute, a research group.

Some people are even leaving Japan’s congested cities for outlying areas. In a first since 1996, the population of Tokyo Prefecture declined last year, to just under 14 million, a drop experts attributed in part to the shift to remote work.

“Covid has triggered a big awakening: Do we need to keep working the same way?” said Kennosuke Tanaka, a professor of career studies at Hosei University. “It’s proving to be a turning point for Japan.”

Takahiro Harada, 53, is among those who have made the leap, taking early retirement last year from Dentsu, the high-powered advertising company, to start his own personal coaching business.

More Japanese have been trying new lines of work as the so-called gig economy has grown — some to offset lost income during the pandemic and others to test whether they want to make a career change.

“For the first time, I really thought about who I am, my self-identity,” Mr. Harada said. “I wasn’t finding a lot of purpose in my job. I realized I was only choosing from the options my company gave me, not really doing what I wanted.”

Over the years, Mr. Harada had noticed that people often approached him for advice, and that he felt emotional whenever they expressed gratitude. It was only last year that he realized he needed to act on that sense of fulfillment.

“I had been mulling starting my own business, but Covid pushed me to actually take that step,” he said.

Japan’s traditional workplace model — which engendered mutual loyalty and labor harmony between employers and workers — may have worked well during the postwar recovery and the 1980s “Bubble Era,” when a famous jingle for a health drink asked corporate warriors, “Are you able to fight 24 hours?”

But it’s outdated now, Mr. Harada said, a constraint both on workers and Japan’s long-stagnant economy.

The priorities of the younger generation — who have worked in a system where nearly 40 percent of workers are now “nonregular employees” — may be changing the most.

In a November survey by Sompo Holdings, a large insurance company, 44 percent of respondents said their work priorities had shifted during the pandemic, with a higher value placed on free time, family and career goals. The change was particularly sharp among younger workers.

They are increasingly putting their own goals above those of the company. If they don’t see a stimulating future at one company, they are more willing to quit, even from top corporations, because they risk less than older workers. More are going to start-ups because they see them as more exciting places to work, with more potential for growth.

Rikako Furumoto, a 21-year-old university student, said that while she wanted to join a big, reputable company, “if the job isn’t something I end up liking, I’ll quit and find something else.”

She wants a brand name on her résumé in case she does need to switch jobs. And while salary and prestige are important, she wants the freedom to work remotely at least a couple of days a week and to pursue side gigs so she has a creative outlet.

Companies are beginning to adapt, overhauling their recruiting and personnel systems in order to grab the best talent in a shrinking pool of candidates as Japan’s population declines and ages.

Some businesses are shifting from the traditional “membership” corporate model, in which employees are essentially owned by the company and moved around from job to job and often city to city without much consultation, to a “self-directed” or “job” model that links employees to specific expertise and gives them a more active role in charting their careers.

“We’ve entered the age in which individuals can choose their futures,” said Masato Arisawa, head of human resources at the juice and sauce maker Kagome, one of the more proactive companies in this regard. “We are focused more on attracting talent than retaining it.”

Kagome has eliminated its seniority pay scale and compensates employees largely on performance. While the company still offers lifetime employment, it doesn’t pressure workers to stay or treat those who leave as traitors. If they return, they are welcomed back.

“Employees shouldn’t be expected to give their entire lives to one company,” said Mr. Arisawa, 61, who himself has worked at four businesses.

Granting employees greater ownership over their careers could lift Japan’s historically low worker engagement levels. Gallup’s 2021 “State of the Global Workplace” report found that only 5 percent of Japanese workers said they felt involved and enthusiastic in their jobs, one of the lowest rankings in the world.

A wave of resignations may be building. While the number of people switching jobs fell to 2.9 million last year after rising to 3.5 million in 2019, the number of those who hope to change jobs has continued to climb.

Ryuya Matsumoto, 38, who is married with two daughters, was one of those who did change jobs. He left a major insurance company in August, mainly because he wanted a job that gave him more family time and international interaction.

During the pandemic, his job didn’t allow for much telework, and he was often away from home until late. His wife, who was also working, wanted him to help more with the housework and child rearing.

He joined an intensive 10-week class offered by Project MINT, a company started in 2020 to help people seek purpose in their lives. “Family emerged as a key word,” Mr. Matsumoto said.

What pushed him over the edge were orders from his company to relocate to Sendai, 215 miles north of Tokyo. Fed up, Mr. Matsumoto quit after landing a job at the consulting firm Accenture that allows him to work from home full time and gives him the international exposure he craved.

“My former boss came to me about five times to ask me to reconsider leaving,” Mr. Matsumoto said. “But I’m happy in this new job.”

Tomoe Ueyama, a former Sony employee who founded Project MINT, said that many participants felt stuck in less-than-fulfilling lives, and that some are worried that the social security system will run out of money by the time they retire — one reason side gigs have become more popular.

Participants — the program has had about 60 so far — are encouraged to redefine their life purpose and get involved in moonlighting jobs and pro bono activities.

Ms. Ueyama said that the pandemic had bred positive changes in Japan’s work culture. “Even if it’s slow,” she said, “Japan is moving toward a society where people can have a more purposeful career and life because organizations are realizing that creativity and flexibility are crucial to survive in a chaotic world.”

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