Are Japan’s Young About to Write Their Own Story?

Back in 2018 I published an article on LinkedIn titled, ‘Young and Careful: Japan’s Strangely Conservative Youth’. At the time of writing that piece it had, for some time, seemed to me that young people in Japan were going against the expected role of social changemaker that I and other foreigners may have expected. After all, what do you expect young people to do other than rebel? Alongside this, and contrary to what may have been anticipated, we were observing a greater likelihood to criticise the ‘system’ among retired people, while the youth kept to its own priorities and largely towed the line. Neither rebellious nor outspoken, Japan’s youth appeared to be obediently following the path laid down for them by their elders.

This surprising behaviour represented a good reminder that many social dynamics, including those between generations, play out differently in Japan compared to western countries. I have often felt, for example, that confidence and power grows with age in Japan in a way that may actually be the reverse in western countries. Certainly, compared to my home country of Australia, age is generally better respected in this culture and it is solid common sense to defer to experience, rather than take risks on the unknown and unproven.  

Change, therefore, happens slowly in Japan. Even when problems are apparent, even when they are urgent, it appears that Japanese feel that it is more important to do no harm than to tinker with solutions. Nevertheless, during certain historical windows people have shown themselves to be highly receptive to rapid and profound change. One such example is the Meiji Restoration period in the mid to late 19th century, when Japan quickly modernised in the face of the threat of foreign domination. Fundamental change was also seen following the second world war as the country adapted to meet its new role and set of opportunities.

Should the current Corona crisis be considered in the same group of transformational contexts for change as the Meiji Restoration? Clearly, it’s too early to say and Japan is not the only country to be impacted by the pandemic. However, there is profound attitudinal change that we are starting to see in the youth when we contrast this to people in their middle age. This is most powerfully showing itself in the way that people relate to work.

Prior to Covid, work was already one of the major fault lines of change. The changing landscape in the world of work was already being driven by the sheer weight of demography. Simply put, there are not enough young Japanese males to replace the army of ‘ideal’ workers that the baby boomers or dankai and their children, the baby dankai, have provided. In their place, women, older workers and foreigners have been increasing their roles in the workforce.

This has occurred, to such an extent that the participation rate in Japan for women in the workforce now exceeds that of the United States. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for women’s share of management roles, which remains one of the lowest in the developed world. Nonetheless the problems women face are becoming better recognised and Japan Inc. has been starting to make noises towards gender equality. 

Then, suddenly, Covid-19 came along in early 2020 and kicked over the chessboard to become the biggest influencer of change for men and women, young and old. We all know that adapting to the pandemic in every country has involved moving work away from traditional office settings to home, as well as made job security in a wide range of industries a good deal more uncertain. When we look at the generational response to this in Japan there is a very different and interesting contrast emerging in those workers under 50. 

For the sake of simplicity let’s divide the under 50s workforce into a super-rough designation of X’s in their 40s, Y’s in their 30s and Z’s in their 20s. Let’s also assume that trends are playing out among leading members of the generations. I am by no means postulating that every member of any given generation is now suddenly different. Change is driven by the pace-setters, so let’s keep the ‘alphas’ of each generation in mind when thinking about the generation overall.

Among Gen X Japanese the changes in workstyle are being taken as an opportunity to understand what inefficiencies exist in current work patterns. While it has been a shock to the system, remote work can mean a practical boost to efficiency and has opened up possibilities for new ways of managing and achieving outcomes. Easier, simpler and more productive ways of working are to be welcomed. However, the older generations (older than Gen X) are seen as one of the key challenges in arriving at better outcomes on a sustained basis.

Gen Y, on the other hand, sees a lifestyle enhancement as they carry out the work they have committed their identity to. This generation, much-maligned globally for its supposed self-centredness, again sees an opportunity to mould their role in the workplace to one that suits their needs. They view new work practices as a more efficient conduit of their talents. The modernisation aspects of the new normal of work are to be welcomed for providing better work life balance. Challenging the old ways and removing impediments to fulfillment are important.

In contrast to both the X’s and Y’s, the Z’s are the least invested in the pre 2020 world of work. Therefore they are the most flexible and creative in responding to the current crisis. Above all, they are realising there is an opportunity opening up for work to be whatever they want it to be. They know the Covid crisis means ‘old rules are out’. They see the social contract between employer and employee fraying but are not viewing this through a negative lens. Rather, they are looking at the current work situation not as a challenge, but as a realistic extension of their lives as consumers and digital citizens.

It is no small claim that Japanese in their 20s may be the first generation in history to feel they can write their own story. There is no need to be subsumed into the system which, in any case, provides little security. They see a dynamic environment – one to which they have no intention of being a victim. In this sense their high-information upbringing and digital fluency is helping them to understand their place and potential field for action. This really is the moment when Japan’s strangely conservative youth actually make their mark. They are looking to bring their whole ‘being’ with them to work, and won’t be interested in working for companies that don’t allow them to do this. The most progressive among them will favour self-management over traditional forms of control. For this reason, I anticipate an upswing in entrepreneurship in the years ahead.

So what does this mean for marketers who want to target the youth of Japan? The answer is that it is too early to tell. However in terms of communications strategy, brands that adjust their stories to adapt to the zeitgeist will prosper. Times of great change also create opportunities for entirely new brands that embody new values. Freedom will be a buzzword, but the newly free will need support to realise their dreams of independence. This will entail a rich vein of opportunities in education and training – if those industries can reform themselves from a top-down learning model. Anything that promises (and much better) delivers empowerment is going to go down well. It’s also likely that greater fulfillment for ‘me’ will leave more room for thinking about ‘we’. Young people may well come to think less about their companies and more about their society and their planet. In this sense, brands that show respect for society and the environment will only continue to prosper.

If one good thing can come out of 2020, let it be young Japanese coming out of their shell to reclaim their power and show all generations how to take the risk to be fulfilled.

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