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