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Global Japan
JUN 28, 2019

The Never-Ending Work Scenario: A New Spin on Japan’s Famous “Job for Life”

By Kurtz Law, With Fumiaki Tajiri
iStock photo/stockstudioX

Over just the last five years, Japan’s retirement age has been pushed back—first from 60 to 65, and more recently from 65 to 70. Following this trend, we can estimate that by 2025, the Japanese government will be urging companies to accept employees until the age of 80. This is in light of the anticipated labor shortage caused by an aging society and depopulation.  According to the United Nations, in 2017, 33.4% of the total population in Japan was aged over 60. It was further estimated that by 2050, the percentage could increase to 42.4%. For further insight into these issues, GLOBIS alumnus Kurtz Law interviewed GLOBIS lecturer Fumiaki Tajiri.

KL: Do you think the skills and experience of elderly employees will be relevant to a modern workforce?

FT: Absolutely, yes. Age is just a number. What is key to this employment discussion, much more than age, is the acquisition and possession of modern skills, aptitudes, and affinities.

Many businesses today are looking at various methods of hiring, training, and retraining their existing and future talent. They’re hiring from much wider and more diverse talent pools than ever before, and highly skilled seniors are seeing as much recruiter attention as any other group with special or diverse needs.

KL: Will Japanese people over the age of 60 be interested in acquiring these skills? Or will they work purely out of necessity?

FT: Many people in Japan have a very high social commitment, and they also exhibit high intellectual curiosity. People of all ages spend their free time learning new skills, languages, and modern technology. Self-development and social contribution are embraced by many as social norms. Market-savvy people invest in their self-development from a very early age. Even after retirement, many people choose to continue working in one way or another. Businesses are looking at opportunities to re-hire these types of highly experienced talent and bring them back into the workforce for as long as they choose to be professionally active.

KL: Do Japanese organizations have the infrastructure to acquire or retain senior talent?

FT: Existing hiring systems need to be revisited and revised in order to accommodate the needs of our modern workforce. But this is not only about senior employees – many organizations are exploring new hiring models to fit in as much diverse talent as possible.

KL: What kind of work styles would most effectively utilize senior talent?

FT: Remote working—either working from home or from anywhere else—temporary work, and so many other alternative employment schemes.

Although change never comes easily, I see an increasing group of Japanese organizations being interested and willing to transform their operations for a more diverse talent population. That includes everyone: people coming in from other countries, people who have been away from the workforce for a while, and, of course, senior citizens. Our markets are more agile, digitally intelligent, collaborative, and convergent than ever before, and our modern talent operations need to be a reflection of that. One pattern doesn’t fit all any longer, and corporate Japan is rapidly becoming aware of this.

KL: How might Japanese companies ensure the health and safety of its elderly employees?

FT: The concept of “work” needs to be redefined, and alternative options need to be developed for those who are interested in co-creation, but who do not necessarily need to be constantly in the office. This is, once again, not only about senior citizens, but also working mothers, expecting mothers, people with disabilities or special needs.

Diversity is a key competency for innovation and business transformation. Smart business will learn how to embrace modern practices and available technologies to update their employee value proposition and customize working experiences. There is no way around this and no turning back.

KL: There’s a lot of talk today about lingering age-based promotion systems. What is your opinion about this?

FT: I wish that seniority-based promotion were already a thing of the past. Unfortunately, there are still many organizations struggling to transform traditional talent operations. These are frequently businesses that struggle with innovation in general, in terms of business strategy, products, and services. Many of these businesses fail to effectively engage their diverse talent, and as a result, they rapidly become homes to self-entitled and short-sighted senior citizens—workplaces where diversity does not thrive.

Most of us have seen a famous Japanese business go bankrupt or get taken over by foreign competition. Failing to invest in talent operations or disconnect from irrelevant operations has a big part in this. It’s much more than a cash flow problem—it is a matter of culture. Brands such as Fujifilm, TDK, Sony, and Japan Airlines have made full use of their diverse talent pools—everyone from the digitally savvy millennial to the most experienced senior employees. Seniority is not a burden. Rather, it carries a lot of cultural gravitas, class, and dignity. Managed properly, it connects to a unique competitive advantage.