Thoughts on life after the PhD
Japan’s post-bubble years have certainly seen their share of real tragedy. Corporate restructuring has resulted in homelessness, suicides, and an overall loss of confidence in a nation that for years prided itself on being an economic juggernaut. But Martin Fackler’s recent piece in the New York Times unwittingly focuses on the positives that have emerged out of the crisis–a less materialistic outlook, an unproductive corporate culture forced to change, and a desire among young people to focus less on work.
The article presents itself as a grim warning to the U.S.–if we’re not careful, this is how we could end up. But reading between the lines, Fackler”s article actually seems to illustrate that a lot of the side effects of Japan’s economic problems–while viewed from inside and out as negatives–have been gifts in disguise.
Fackler begins with the story of Masato Y., whose living standards “crumbled” as Japan’s economy went south. And “crumbled” apparently means that Masato was forced to trade in his late-model Mercedes for a domestic model, eliminate vacations to Hawaii, and sell his $500,000 condo. Granted, Masato has some real problems–he sold his condo for a third of what he paid for it and owes $110,ooo on the mortgage–but are we really supposed to be sympathetic about the loss of his luxury car and vacations?
Rather than painting a picture of a prosperous nation reduced to lower-middle class status, Fackler’s article seems to depict a nation that went from insane luxury to a kind of “middle-class” lifestyle that most of the rest of the world would envy. And in their fall to middle-class status, it seems there are a lot of positive side effects, particularly for young Japanese.
Fackler writes that “a new frugality is apparent among a generation of young Japanese, who have known nothing but economic stagnation and deflation. They refuse to buy big-ticket items like cars or televisions, and fewer choose to study abroad in America.” Professor Kazuhisa Takemura of Waseda says that in a state of deflation, “a new common sense appears, in which consumers see it as irrational or even foolish to buy or borrow.” A woman who works in an apparel shop says that “the Japanese have even lost the desire to look good.” Fashionable clubs where a seat can cost $500 are vanishing in Osaka. Hisakazu Matsuda, president of Japan Consumer Marketing Research Institute, calls Japanese 20-somethings “consumption-haters” who think it’s “stupid to spend money.”
My response to all of the above? Hooray!
I realize that Japan’s economic deflation has produced some serious and complicated problems, but are frugality, less focus on outward appearance, and fewer ridiculously expensive night clubs really to be counted among those problems? Yes, I know that we (foolishly) measure the success of a country based on how much stuff its people buy, but is it really so bad for people to spend less? Particularly when, as the article points out, they’re spending less on things like cars, night clubs, clothes, and expensive trips abroad? (It’s unfortunate that fewer are able to study abroad, though).
Fackler points out that many Japanese blame young men for exacerbating the country’s economic problems–they don’t have enough interest in marriage and children, and “(lack) their elders’ willingness to toil for endless hours at the office.” Again, hooray! Since shaming these young men doesn’t seem to be working, maybe companies will finally start creating more humane working conditions that allow for more of a balance between work and family.
This may already be happening. In response to the rapidly declining birth rate (the dreaded “shusshouritsu” that, combined with Japan’s aging population, is frequently cited as the root of the country’s impending doom), some company work schedules now include “family time,” some companies have at least one day a week where the power is shut off at 6 pm, and a small number of fathers are finally stepping up and taking paternity leave. Though the process is slow and painful, companies are also finally reorganizing their ancient and unproductive system of lifetime employment. And I’m guessing those “consumption-hater” twenty-somethings are discovering ways of enjoying themselves that don’t involve spending huge sums of money on luxury goods. .
Again, there are real problems to be tackled here. One of the genuine downsides that Lohr’s article briefly touches on is a growing unwillingness to take risks, especially among young people. Granted, certain financial risks–borrowing more money than you can pay back, buying a house you can’t afford, high-risk / high-yield investing–were never a good idea to begin with, but the trickling down of such financial thinking to everyday Japanese lives is a serious problem. Without at least some level of risk-taking mentality, the innovative ideas that could lead to economic turnaround for Japan may never surface.
Ultimately, though, if Japan’s years of economic deflation teach people to be less materialistic and force corporate culture to evolve, I’d hardly call it cause for alarm. Of the many things the U.S. can learn from Japan, one of the most valuable may be that crises can produce gifts in disguise.
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