Never have Japanese workers felt so expendable.
The 40s and 50s were the peak years of a working person’s life. You’d start with a company fresh out of school and rise slowly but predictably through the ranks, taking on more and more responsibility, drawing better and better pay, retiring at last around 60 with a comfortable nest egg and agreeable memories of a fulfilling and productive life.
The faster the future rushes in on us, the sharper the nostalgia for a more predictable, more manageable past. Spa! (Feb 23 – March 2) polls 3,000 corporate employees aged 40-59 and finds 69.1 percent fearing “restructuring,” the ubiquitous euphemism for being laid off. That’s the worst-case scenario but not the only bad one. Another is professional and financial stagnation – salaries more likely to fall than rise, promotion a lost hope.
The coronavirus pandemic is accelerating trends that began a generation ago with the bursting of the economic bubble that characterized the 1970s and ’80s. In those heady days, there was room for everyone, space at the top for many. Promotion and pay raises were based on seniority; now, supposedly, on merit, productivity. It’s less kind, and not at all gentle. It can’t be. The corporate paternalism of former times – the employee a sort of child to the company-father – depended on limitless growth. In pinched times like these it’s an unaffordable luxury. When survival depends on cost-cutting, who bears the brunt? The workforce, of course.
“Joji Yoshioka” (a pseudonym, like all the names in this story), is a 46-year-old mid-level IT executive. Financially, he’s doing fine, earning 8 million yen a year. His company creates programs that facilitate teleworking. They are much in demand as remote work spreads. What’s the trouble, then? A heightened form of middle-management blues. “My boss ups my quotas; I must increase my subordinates’ quotas,” he tells Spa!. His boss is high enough up to merely give orders. Yoshioka, with a less intimidating title, must manage his five subordinates and also set the example; he must work harder than they; he must lead and follow simultaneously. He fears the strain is killing him – literally. “I feel I’m on the verge of karoshi (death from overwork),” he says.
“Tetsuya Wakao” would probably envy him. Short of collapse, Yoshioka is at least secure – at least seems so. Wakao, 43, is in the restaurant business. That’s the sector hardest hit by coronavirus depredation. Until very recently he was ”area manager” for a restaurant chain, earning, like Yoshioka, 8 million a year. Then came November’s “third wave” of infections. A call came from head office. Wakao was informed of his new title – no longer “area manager” but “expert chef.” The English term was not immediately comprehensible. When he took it in, he was puzzled – he certainly was not what it implied – but soon got the idea. It meant, to all intents and purposes, a shift from fulltime status to part-time, with salary cut to match. He now earns 6 million a year.
What can he do? Find another job? At his age? His kids are in elementary school. “I have no choice,” he says, “but to cling to my company. At first I told myself, ‘The pandemic will pass, things will settle down’ – but they’re already inviting applications for early retirement.” He reads the writing on the wall, and hopes his head is not slated for the block.
“Masataka Aoki,” 39, is a low-ranking executive with a home appliance maker. He earns 5.5 million yen a year. He was a valued worker, his boss liked him, promotion was in the offing; he was happy and confident. Can happiness and confidence survive a pandemic? Aoki is increasingly doubtful. His subordinates are all home teleworking. Teleworking breeds independence; independent workers need less supervision; that means fewer managers. The post he’d been looking forward to rising to was one of three potential openings. These have been cut to one; he’s one of several candidates, and not, he says, the likeliest one – at least one other has a better sales record. “It’s become like a game of musical chairs,” he tells Spa!. As he sees it, the former competition for promotion has become an even more feral competition for mere survival – and if that happens, he says, “I think I’ll want to die.”© Japan Today