“Suddenly, I’m being transferred to some place out in the sticks – no prior notice at all; I hear it from my boss the day before.”
If you find this extraordinary and/ or intolerable, you’re in step with a younger generation of disgruntled company employees whose fathers and grandfathers would have accepted that sort of thing as normal. The speaker, quoted by Shukan Post (Dec 16), is a 37-year-old man working in the financial sector. He continues: “It was very hard on my family. But I had no choice. They asked me about transfers when I first joined the company, and I said OK.”
It’s not OK, though, for 42.7% of male and 57.5% of female company employees aged 30-49, according to research published last year by Chuo University’s Work-Life Balance and Diversity Promotion Research Project. Those polled would do everything possible, they said – including, in extreme cases, quit – rather than accept a transfer. Japan Inc no longer commands the unswerving loyalty and obedience it once took for granted.
Why the surge of resistance? The reasons Shukan Post quotes are what you’d expect – the family or boyfriend/ girlfriend you don’t want to leave behind, the cost of setting up another household (considerable even if the company assumes part of it), the emotional stresses and strains of having to build a social life from scratch, and so on.
But these factors have always been present. The difference is that once they were taken in stride. No longer.
Transfers, Shukan Post explains, were integral to career advancement. As a freshman, you did your basic training at corporate headquarters, then got sent out – to branches in Japan, to affiliates overseas, wherever. That way you got to know everything your company did and everyone it dealt with. Three or four transfers in 10 years were par for the course. Then, your managerial skills honed and tempered, you came back to headquarters ready for the highest level of responsibility. It was hard on the family, but they knew what corporate life was and accepted it; it was hard on you, but you soothed your loneliness with thoughts of the splendid career you were building for yourself.
Maybe young people today are less ambitious, less self-sacrificing, more questioning of arrangements held to be “inevitable.” Are transfers really necessary? If so, why are there so relatively few of them overseas? That does seem to be the case, Shukan Post finds. Transferring as a matter of course, it says, is a unique feature of Japanese corporate culture.
Increasingly, personnel departments interviewing job-hunting university students find them resistant to transfers. If transfers are forced on them, they would rather work elsewhere. Worse, via tweeting and posting, they brand companies that insist on transfers as “burakku kigyo” – “black companies” whose “blackness” consists in ruthless exploitation of staff. They’re much in the news lately. No legitimate company wants to be tarred with that label.
Slowly, employers are rethinking their transfer policies; Shukan Post cites Kirin and Aeon as two firms in the vanguard. Even where transfers can’t be eliminated entirely, they can be reduced, and employees are given some latitude – exemptions related to child-rearing or the care of aged relatives, for example.
Not everyone thinks this new flexibility is healthy. Manga artist Kenshi Hirokane, 69, puts his generation’s view this way: “Young employees, instead of enjoying change, fear it. They have it too good and don’t want to leave their cocoon. If that’s the attitude, Japanese companies have no chance against enterprises in more vigorous countries.”© Japan Today