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Generation gap at work in the office between Showa and Heisei employees

8 Comments
By Michael Hoffman

There’s a generation gap at work in the office, says President magazine (July 1). It’s a tale of two eras, Showa (1926-89) and Heisei (1989-2019). The postwar Showa years built a surging economy and a psychology to match: driven, dedicated, a bit crude maybe in terms of the finer things in life but admirable in its sacrifice of present pleasure for future rewards that were not necessarily personal. To the extent that they were, they included money, title, prestige. Beyond that, you worked – and felt yourself to be working – for the good of the company, the good of the country. You yourself might not live to see the see the flowering of what you sowed, but you knew it would come. You had faith.

Such moods don’t last forever. Heisei proved it. The Showa “corporate warrior” restored a shattered country, defeated poverty, created wealth and spread it as equably as a highly developed industrial economy ever has. By the mid-1980s, 90 percent of Japanese considered themselves middle class.

Showa passed the torch to Heisei, saying, in effect, “Carry on.” But how? With what? For what? Adversity invites struggle but abundance says, in effect, “Relax, enjoy” – until satiety sets in, and then decadence is just around the corner. Cars, TVs, household appliances, household gadgets, all the stuff you in childhood or your parents in their lives never had, were tickets to the middle class. Admission gained, what next?

Consumption slowed, production stalled, the heady growth of Showa gave way to the inertia of Heisei. The typical Heisei employee was the “warrior” tamed. Work became less and less the core of life, and more and more the means to ends that lay outside the workplace. Heisei Japan discovered the private life.

President’s generation gap pits senior management with roots in Showa against Heisei subordinates who speak a different language, play by different rules – play, in fact, a different game.

Speaking of language: Showa talks body while Heisei winces. A favorite Showa word, President says, is “guts.” There’s nothing you can’t do with guts, no obstacle you can’t overcome. “What do you mean, ‘the quota is unreasonable?’” fumes Showa boss to Heisei staff. “In my day no quota was unreasonable; we had guts; you’ve got no guts.” “Well, it’s not ‘your day’ anymore,” mutters Heisei staffer under his or her breath.

There’s truth in that, President says; things are different now, and Showa managers, if they’re to motivate their teams, are best advised – in fact warned –  to use less “overbearing” language. Showa’s “power” is Heisei’s pawahara – power harassment.

“You never know what they’re thinking,” Showa often complains of Heisei. True, communication is not Heisei’s strong point – this in spite of the communication technology the Heisei cohort wields so naturally. Showa seniors may have fallen behind in that sense, but at least they speak their minds; you know where you stand with them.

“What do you think?” a Showa manager might say to the staff. “Let’s hear your views.” This is pure Showa style, and a generation ago the juniors didn’t need to be asked twice. They had views and were eager to share them. Now, says President, the response is more likely to be an averting of eyes, a shuffling of feet, and a mumbled, “Whatever the company decides is okay with me.”

There’s a deep trauma at work here. The economic slump the ’90s was more than simply growth catching its breath. It was growth arrested, growth stymied. Recession dragged on for most of three decades, spawning a hiring freeze that forced large swaths of an entire generation into a lifetime of part-time jobs if not worse: hikikomori, an extreme form of social withdrawal affecting anywhere from 1 to 2 million who, at worst, retreat into the childhood bedroom and slam the door – for good.

The slow but steady recovery of the 2010s, checked by COVID-19, now confronts potentially ruinous inflation, fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The population meanwhile grows older and older; the gap between rich and poor grows wider. Fewer children than ever were born in 2021, breaking the record low of the year before, which itself had been a record.

A cartoon in President captures the prevailing office mood well. A mid-career executive and junior staffer confer across a table, each recording the conversation on his smartphone. Beads of sweat suggest tension shared. The senior’s thought is, “Just in case a problem arises of ‘This was said, no it wasn’t.’” The junior thinks, “If there’s pawahara, I’ll expose it.”

© Japan Today

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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The population meanwhile grows older and older; the gap between rich and poor grows wider. Fewer children than ever were born in 2021, breaking the record low of the year before, which itself had been a record.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The pace at which births in Japan is declining has accelerated well beyond past government projections, further dimming the goal of maintaining the population. 

The number of births fell below 815,000 six years earlier than a projection made in 2017 by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research (IPSS).

The IPSS made three projections, with the one used by the government predicting 869,000 births in 2021. The pessimistic projection had births in 2021 at 756,000. The actual figure fell between those two projections. But the government projection was that births would fall under 815,000 in 2027.

Number of births plunging faster than government projections | The Asahi Shimbun: Breaking News, Japan News and Analysis

So expect a severe acceleration of the pop decline. Its also still unclear what effect COVID had on people's mental health and social skills not to mention financial stability, but it would seem that all signs point to negative effects on boosting the birthrate.

THEN throw into the mix inflation and rising prices and you have an even bigger recipe for disaster.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

ThonTaddeoJune 23  09:23 am JST

This part is not because the Heisei workers have no opinions; it's because Heisei workers have learned that expressing an undesirable opinion or saying anything 'wrong' can ruin you. Their logic is that if they can't read the boss's 'air' and say what is expected, then it's better to keep your opinions to yourself and let the powerful people do what they were always going to do anyway.

Great insight and very well put.

Took me awhile to realize the same, because as foreigners the workers are more open and expressive to us, so we wonder why the revolt they plan at lunchtime fizzles out after we get settled back down in the office.

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Best lesson I ever learned is your boss is not your friend. Keep your guard up at drinking parties, etc.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I find the idea that Showa era bosses were open to suggestions from junior employees somewhat laughable. Japan is a country that promotes yes men, not people who try to change things. We get vast sports halls full of identical people on recruitment day because everyone knows their place and wants to fit in.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

An article like this is going to have to deal in generalizations, but I've seen power-hara type behavior from someone who was definitely from the Heisei era. Some old habits die hard.

7 ( +8 / -1 )

To be honest, the Showa gen didn't leave much for the Heisei gen to work with.

6 ( +9 / -3 )

a generation ago the juniors didn’t need to be asked twice. They had views and were eager to share them. Now, says President, the response is more likely to be an averting of eyes, a shuffling of feet, and a mumbled, “Whatever the company decides is okay with me.”

This part is not because the Heisei workers have no opinions; it's because Heisei workers have learned that expressing an undesirable opinion or saying anything 'wrong' can ruin you. Their logic is that if they can't read the boss's 'air' and say what is expected, then it's better to keep your opinions to yourself and let the powerful people do what they were always going to do anyway.

8 ( +9 / -1 )

This disguises an awkward truth. Traditional Japanese workplace practice was a perfect match for needs of the post-war era. Doing things progressively better, reliably. But when the internet arrived, largely in English, requiring innovation led by younger people, the modus operandi of Japan Inc. was not a good fit. And change does not come easy to Japan's institutions.

Pre-Internet, we were tribes who only ventured abroad on holiday. Cultural changes were imported at a corporate or government level. In the internet age, cultural change happens much faster and more widely at the level of ordinary people - Westeners were watching Kdrama and listening to Kpop before it was on mainstream TV and radio. Corporates, governments and traditional media struggled to catch up. Often they simply chose to censor, restrict or ban this cross-cultural development, hoping it would go away.

Combine these two and the gulf between Showa and Heisei is like that between two nations. An older generation that maybe cannot change (and do not want to), and a younger one that are constantly reinventing themselves in a mash up of new and traditional ideas from around the world.

It's not a lost cause, but it requires sensitivity and an understanding of both sides to create any sort of viable synergy. Some of the big guns of Japan Inc. are offering space to Japan's brave new world of young innovators, but too many politicians fear the new, and simply wish to crack down on it.

12 ( +13 / -1 )

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