Friday, May 27, 2011

The Second Lost Generation - The Story of One Wandering Japanese Engineer

At first it might not seem that cataclysmic that only 90.1 percent of Japanese college grads had jobs lined up on graduation.  But the current slump is likely to create a "lost generation" in which large numbers of probably high achievers are completely or largely locked out of the conventional job market, and forced into part-time, temporary, or international work.  That's because of a hiring system that only gives seekers one shot - in the period just after they graduate.  Those who either want to take some time off, or who slip through the hiring cracks despite a sincere effort, are out of luck.  I spent about eight months after my (alread unconventionally late) graduation living on a friends' couch, substitute teaching, then hitchhiking across the U.S. and travelling in Mexico.  If I had been Japanese, I'd have been screwed.

I had a brief conversation last night with a guy who has actually had to leave Japan twice for economic reasons.  He was part of a previous 'lost generation' of the mid-1990s, and had ended up living and working in New Jersey for several years as a young man, including being in the National Guard, which he told me was a possibility for permanent residents - news to me.  This is of course pretty adventurous, and he seemed like he'd banked some pretty amazing experiences, but what he wasn't doing during the most dynamic phase of his life was contributing to Japanese economy and society.

He did eventually get back to Japan and, with the experience accrued (in engineering) in America, got a job with the Japanese arm of a European company.  And then came the Lehmann shock, and the Tokyo office got folded and combined with the Shanghai branch.  So he was back on his ass, and subsequently couldn't find work for a year.  Now he's doing some (frankly illegal) entrepreneuring, running a company that scans books from Amazon Japan for use on e-readers, since there is as yet no e-book market there.  He had imported a Kindle from the U.S. (which I've seen before but this time particularly struck me as impressive) and clearly had a lot to offer in terms of insight and innovation to Japanese society.  Unfortunately (as confirmed by the small anarchist bar where I ran into him) he's now been almost totally relegated to the fringes, where it's unlikely he'll have an easy path to making those contributions.

In the economic tumult following Japan's largest natural disaster, there will be more like my new friend, having to improvise to survive outside of the mainstream of Japanese business culture.  The question is whether there will be any more second chances for them, or any new effort by the nation to make the most of its infamously dwindling workforce.

No comments: