Future of Work Interview Series

#6. Round-Table Talk with Interns

We held a round-table talk with interns in their 20s and 30s at international organizations in June 2018, as thinking about the future of work means, for younger generations, thinking about their own future.

  • A: Female, in her early 30s. Joined a major city bank on graduating from university. After working for the bank for over five years, including half-year maternity leave, switched to a major general trading company. Was in charge of legal affairs of the derivatives department at the company. Quitted the job after four years. Now studying an LLM.
  • B: Male, in his early 30s. Worked for a material manufacturer for about seven years after graduating from graduate school. Engaged in production management and technical enhancement at its factory. Left the company in order to pursue a career track in international cooperation and development.
  • C: Male, in his late 20s. On graduating from university, got a job with a Japanese company and worked in Southeast Asia for two years. Then, worked for Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers in Central America, in the field of education, for two years. Planning to study at a graduate school from this summer.

The Japanese corporate life now

Work style reform and work-life balance are garnering a great attention in Japan nowadays. What is your take? What did the companies you worked for do on these fronts?

A:  Under the government’s banner of having female managers account for 30 % of all managers by 2020, I do feel things got much better for female workers, like maternity and childcare leave. Kurumin certification is quite popular with companies. I had someone to talk to about what I was going through, as the company had mentoring system for female employees on career tracks. I heard, though, that when male employees applied for childcare leave, they were told it might impact their career at the company.

* What are Kurumin and Platinum Kurumin Certifications?

Kurumin certifications are granted by the Minister of Health, Labour and Welfare to those companies that are supportive of employees with small children. To be eligible, companies must devise action plans, achieve targets, and satisfy certain standards in accordance with the Act on Advancement of Measures to Support Raising Next-Generation Children, before applying for the certification. As of the end of March 2018, 2878 companies are Kurumin certified. Those that pursue even higher standards are eligible for Platinum Kurumin certifications; 195 companies are Platinum Kurumin certified as of the end of March 2018.

B: When some incidents occurred on the shop floor, I had to stay overnight at the factory to deal with them. I don't think we’ll find solutions for this soon, since jobs like that cannot be easily automated, and we’re short-handed. We had a factory in Southeast Asia. I heard they were not pushed to work like that over there, as they had enough labour force. It seems to me, securing enough workforce is a serious challenge for Japanese manufacturers.

C: I’ve only ever worked abroad, but this is what I heard from my friends back home. It sounded like they did have plenty of time on their hands, the life part in terms of work-life balance, but they were hard pressed for money on the work end. This must be the same anywhere, but it seems they are struggling to get by and can hardly afford to enjoy precious days off, as well-paid jobs are hard to come by in rural areas.

The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare released Guidelines on Promotion of Side Business in January this year. Now some companies openly approve of employees having side businesses. The Japanese corporate culture has often been premised on lifetime employment, but are we seeing some changes here?

A: Some companies have schemes for intrapreneurship. The company I worked for had an initiative where 20 % of our jobs was to propose new business plans. Still, I don't think its underlying mindset was adapting to the changes. Some of my colleagues were from different cultures, but most of them quitted within one year, not finding their place in the Japanese corporate culture, which is characterised by seniority system and school cliques. The labour market is definitely gaining more fluidity in the meantime, and so the corporate culture might take a sudden turn at some point. I believe this market trend will accelerate as it has become easier to change jobs these days, plenty of jobs going on career-change websites and SNS.

B: Japan should do away with the practice of recruiting new graduates at the same time every year. This makes it difficult for workers to change career tracks, as it makes Japanese companies too uniform, offering workers too few choices. Another issue is that the age to start working is becoming higher. This may be due to the fact that it is hard to find a job in R&D in the private sector even if you did science, unless you have a master’s degree.

C: There should be more people going back to school in their late 20s after gaining some work experience, like they do in Europe and the US. I believe such trend will help facilitate job matching throughout the labour market, from my own experience of finding out what fields I was or wasn’t interested in when I actually experienced working in those particular fields. Gap year would help, too.

You all have experienced career change, but did you mean to work for the same company all your lives when you first started out?

All: No.

A: Some of my colleagues did say they wanted to continue working for the same company all their lives because they got married and had family, but many more young people change jobs nowadays than before. Still, it does feel daunting to quit a job here.

Do you feel insecure about the national pension and other social security systems in Japan?

All: Probably, young people do not expect much of the national pension system. It doesn't seem likely that we would be able to live off pension alone, though it is securer than private pension plans, being a national system. We need to provide for our future by saving up and what not. We have the spine to manage our own affairs, instead of simply waiting for the government to take care of us.

C: I do feel anxious though, as I don't know how much I’d need to put aside, when there’s no guarantee that the current social security systems would hold until my old age in this rapidly ageing nation.

Working outside Japan

A: With the Japanese economy getting smaller, I feel we need to look at working outside Japan as one option. This obviously means we need language skills. But other than that, I’m not sure what kind of skills, what kind of education, our children will need. Anyhow, they’ll need ability to adapt and to accommodate change.

B: I’m trying to get a job at an international organization, but I’m full of anxiety because I just don’t know if I can get myself a contract, and because even if I do, it will probably be a fixed-term contract. I have great financial worries too, as I don't know how far my savings would get me through.

A: If you want to do internship overseas, for example, it’s only those with rich parents or partners who will support them financially, those who are well off, that can choose to follow that path. The average annual income of parents with children who get into the University of Tokyo is over ten million yen (approx. US$ 91,000), and there are many factors other than students’ efforts that heavily affect their success. That tells me that gap is widening in Japanese society.

C: Much is said about young people becoming reluctant to study or work abroad, and I believe that my experience of working abroad from early on will serve me well against others in my generation. But it is difficult to have a future plan, like when I should get married, because I have no clue what part of the world I’ll be working in even in a few years’ time. I also have to compete against people outside of Japan, not just Japanese people. So, I’m exploring skills other than language skills because I cannot beat native speakers there.

How will IT change society?

Information Technology has greatly changed society, as we can see in AI, the Internet of Things, and the sharing economy. Many must feel uneasy about such changes. How do you feel?

All: I don’t feel particularly uneasy about those changes, as they help our life more than they threaten it.

A: The Internet has freed us from geographical location. I was able to work anywhere, as long as I had the Internet and my PC. The problem is that many people still insist they have to talk to people face to face. Talking on Skype is no different from talking to them face to face, I should think.

B: I had imagined that there would be more jobs in small towns by now, but company headquarters still tend to concentrate in Tokyo. I wonder why.

C: There aren’t many industries where I come from, so I hope there will be more IT jobs, offering young people to work in their hometowns. Everything is set for that to happen now, I believe.

A: Since I started using car clubs, I don’t feel I need to own a car. Carsharing is handy and it saves money. It’s not likely I’d ever buy a car, because I don't believe in owning cars as a symbol of my social status.

C: I’m living in a shared house now, as a temporary arrangement before I go abroad to study this summer. I mean to make much use of the sharing economy because I need to save for that purpose.

A: Payment systems will become rapidly standardized. China has achieved a cash-less society already, with QR code payment quickly becoming the norm. Japan is lagging way behind in this area. So we need to establish a unified payment system soon.

Future Prospect

A: The internship was a great opportunity for me, as I’d never had the chance of experiencing human rights related activities in an international organization in my previous jobs. And I hope something will come out of this. I’d never tried a completely different field before, but I found basic work skills are the same whether it’s banking or human rights. This experience gave me confidence to try out other fields. As I have a child, working conditions are as important as job descriptions, whatever job I do. It may become a decisive factor in choosing a job if it allows me to work flexibly, like working from home, which may be the sustainable work arrangement for me. I read in a news article the other day that the UN has many great employees who joined it in their 40s or 50s. (‘Seikai Zoom: More Japanese People Working for International Organizations’, The Nikkei, 15 June 2018, evening edition.)  It’s not easy to change jobs if you’re in your 40s or later in this country even now, and I’ve heard it’s even more difficult for people to return to work after leaving off the job for childcare and what not. I find overseas labour markets have more opportunities for people with various backgrounds. I hope Japan will follow suit. Since I believe doing my best for the job at hand leads on to future possibilities, I will try to seek various experiences through work, while taking a balance between work and family life.

B: I’m thinking of working abroad for a few years, gaining experience in development and international cooperation. It does give me a slight sense of anxiety to change career tracks frequently, from a Japanese perspective, but I will work towards my goal of ultimately working for an international organization, overcoming that fear. We are facing an era when we choose jobs based on working conditions and what is required of us on the job.

C: It struck me, having this discussion today, that all the participants said it wouldn’t be important where we work. In Australia, for example, activity-based working has become prevalent since around 2000. (‘How People Work in the World’, Yomiuri Shimbun, 15 June 2018.)  Employees can choose freely when and where to work, and they don't have to go to office at all as long as they get results in some extreme cases. I expect such trend will become mainstream in Japan too. So, I have high hopes for more choices in terms of how we work, but cannot help feeling uneasy about the matter of social securities.