Back when my college days were winding down, my job hunting had turned up two promising leads. One was with a Los Angeles-based fruit exporter, and the other was with a chain of English schools in Japan. As appealing as the idea of having an inside track to some of the world’s finest citrus was, in the end, the siren song of living and working overseas was just too enticing to resist.
Seeing as how that decision eventually led me to some amazing experiences, a wonderful spouse, and a job that occasionally pays me to drink beer, I’d say it was a good call. Still, it’s not all intriguing discoveries and delicious food, as culture shock and homesickness are also parts of leaving the country you grew up in. As much as I love it, living overseas isn’t for everyone, including more than half of new college graduates in Japan, according to one recent survey.
As part of its tracking of business trends and attitudes, the Japan Management Association does an annual survey of new hires at companies in Japan. Although there are exceptions, finishing college in exactly four years, finding a job and remaining with that same company for your career is still the norm in Japanese society. As a result, the majority of the workers polled can be assumed to be fresh-faced 22-year-olds who, given that both the end of the Japanese school year and beginning of the fiscal year happen in spring, are just now settling into their positions.
As a resource-poor country whose largest business entities are heavily dependent on exporting, Japan has long owed its economic prosperity to its profitable ties to the rest of the global economy. For most workers, an overseas assignment is both a feather in the cap and a shortcut to the next rung on the corporate ladder. So the JMA was surprised that, when they asked their survey participants if they hoped to someday work overseas, 57.7% said “no,” the highest figure the organization has ever seen in its regular poll.
Paradoxically, and no doubt somewhat troubling for their bosses, 75.3% of those polled said they believed that greater globalization is a major opportunity for Japanese enterprises. Even more, 78.2%, recognized that internationalization, if carried out successfully, would directly benefit them as individuals. Even so, they had no intention of actually going abroad themselves.
So if young workers can see the upside to working overseas, what’s holding them back?
The most common response, put forth by 54.5%, were concerns about safety, sanitation, and diet. For many new employees’ parents, an overseas post meant one of the economic capitals of the world, and a few years spent in cosmopolitan New York or London wasn’t such a hard sell. Recently, though, many Japanese companies are looking to expand their presence in the developing economies of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, or Africa. For many people who’ve grown up enjoying the almost complete lack of violent crime in Japan, whether it’s a fair assessment to make or not, these countries seem terribly dangerous, not to mention lacking in cleanliness compared to a nation where high-tech toilets with automated bidets have become the norm.
While many satisfied expats say the local cuisine is one of their favorite aspects of living abroad, it’s important to keep in mind that enough people in Japan have such a narrow palette that you can find individual-sized dry packs of miso soup in travel shops, just in case you can’t make it through the flight to your destination without the Japanese staple.
And 52% of respondents cited worries about language and communication as a reason they’d rather spend their career inside Japan. While English is taught as part of compulsory education, it’s a lot like calculus or chemistry in that people tend to forget most of what they learned after graduation unless it directly ties into their daily work. Plus, as we mentioned above, an increasing number of foreign assignments are to non-English-speaking countries, which often just exacerbates the problem.
Some 38.5% said they’d miss their friends and family if they were assigned a position outside of Japan. While that seems like a straightforward enough answer, Japanese business and education practices make this concern particularly large in scope.
If, for example, a company needs its engineer to go to Dubai for a two-year project, the relocation package doesn’t always include the employee’s immediate family. Even within Japan, it’s not so unusual for a father to live apart from his spouse and children for months or even years. Japanese human resource management means that employees get bounced around to different offices with surprising frequency, and the system of entrance tests for schools means many parents don’t want to pull their kids out of a school they worked so hard to get into. Many couples have an understanding that if one of them were to head overseas, the other would stay behind to look after the kids and home, and this familial separation isn’t exactly the surest blueprint to a happy life.
The simplest answer, though, came from the 39.3% who said they have no interest in working abroad because they “like Japan.”
As for our two cents, we can’t help but feel the poll’s results are at least in part influenced by general shifts in Japanese values over the past several years. Not so long ago, throwing yourself into your job and ignoring everything else was considered respectable, even admirable. But the younger generation in Japan is in the process of reevaluating the kind of work-life balance it wants, with more women working and an increasing number of men taking on a larger share of household and child-rearing responsibilities.
Sending an employee overseas is a serious investment, and companies do so with the expectation that they’ll be able to recover an even greater amount of revenue from the decision, which usually means an increased workload for the employee in question. Perhaps the large number of new graduates who told the Japan Management Association they’ve got no interest in working abroad aren’t so much averse to living overseas as they are to living for their company’s bottom line.
Source: Career Connection
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