Myth 1. Young Japanese aren’t loyal to their employers
“They just use the company as a stepping stone”
Japanese companies have been worrying for a while now that young people are job hopping far more than previous generations. A Mynavi survey shows that only 22% of graduate recruits starting work in 2019 said they would be interested in staying at their company until retirement, 8% for over 10 years, 10% 6 to 10 years, 15% 4-5 years, 22% up to 3 years and 24% were “not sure”.
According to Nikkei Business, in their special feature on the myths of why young people quit, the reality is that because young Japanese people like the company they chose, they can’t bear to watch it decline. The Nikkei gives an example of an anonymous new graduate recruit who left her company after 3 years. She had studied abroad, had good language and communication skills and a strong interest in human resources. She thought working for a Japanese manufacturer had a romantic appeal, and the HR department wooed her heavily. Her reasons for quitting were that the general manager level was resistant to change, and when a new President took over, the direction of the company turned 180 degrees, making her worry about the lack of corporate governance.
Myth 2 Young Japanese lack perseverance
“They immediately complain when work gets tough”
The Nikkei points to a survey of managers of people in their 20s and early 30s which discovered that most managers thought that a much higher proportion of their team were proactive and willing to take up challenges than were not.
If anything, it’s the bosses who do not persevere, says Nikkei Business. They cite a young employee who quit a major insurance company in 2019 after 4 years who said that he was was highly motivated by tough challenges. He had looked forward to putting his energies into sales, but was repelled by how his boss – who took no responsibility and only thought about promotion – was so well evaluated.
Myth 3 Young Japanese quit because their pay is too low
“They prioritise pay because they are worried about their future”
A survey by Japan Net Bank in 2017 showed that 21% of 18-25 year olds did not expect to earn more than their parents over their lifetime, and 43% thought it was unlikely that they would do so.
Nikkei Business comments that the key concern of young Japanese employees is whether their job has meaning, and is of value. It quotes a young bank employee who thought that by working for a regional bank, he could support local businesses. However he did not see the point of the products he was selling and his request to transfer to a different department was refused. So he quit after 7 years.
Myth 4 Young Japanese quit out of youthful impetuosity
“They don’t have any responsibilities, so they quit on impulse”
It is true that Japanese are marrying later than before (75% of men are unmarried at 29, over 60% of women), so family responsibilities do not weigh so heavily on people in their 20s. “If I think about my future, I care more about how I am valued outside of the company than inside” says one high flier who quit a very prestigious trading company job. He had hoped to use his corporate finance and accounting skills and venture capital experience to help people in emerging markets. However he was placed in a division which did not make use of his expertise and was unexpectedly asked to transfer to another area.
Myth 5 Young Japanese quit because of too much overtime
“They want to have an easy life and hate overtime”
“I’m happy to do overtime, if I feel it’s adding value to the world” says a young Japanese rising star who quit her company after 2 years. She thought the company seemed very diverse and liked the way board level directors were involved in recruitment. However after an exhausting worklife, she felt she would be better in a job where she really felt she was contributing to society.
It’s hard to see any major cultural difference or something uniquely Japanese about this mismatch. I have vague memories of similar frustrations and worries when I was a young person thinking about joining a big multinational organisation after university 30+ years’ ago.
The dangers of going for the obvious solutions
The second part of this feature goes on to look at what Japanese companies could do to improve retention, and points out that the tactics that are usually proposed may be mistaken.
For example, thinking that there should be more 1:1 meetings between younger staff and their bosses could just increase frustration, if nothing is done as a result of the meetings. Having a system whereby young staff can request transfers is also pointless if the transfer is not approved, and often the dissatisfactions continue even in the new role. Internal commendations can also feel hollow, mentors often fail to turn up for mentoring meetings and simple pay rises don’t address key concerns about personal development either. Talking up the bright future of the company can also seem like just so much hot air.
More innovative approaches to retention
Nikkei Business recommends more innovative approaches, to address the fundamental reasons young people leave their companies. They point out that even good contributors, or employees who were reasonably happy in their work quit their employers, for reasons which are more to do with wanting to expand horizons, develop specialist knowledge or skills, or to have a job which better fits their lifestyle.
One recommended approach is to transfer young people abroad, or to more challenging environments. I would add a note of caution here, which is that I have often seen young people enjoying the freedom and challenge of living abroad, and then not wanting to return to their traditional Japan HQ, and quitting. Nikkei Business also suggests an “intermediate” mentor – closer to the junior employee in age and seniority, who acts as a go-between with the more senior mentor. Finally they recommend using AI to understand the motivations and fit of the person with various job roles.
I would add to this that Japanese companies might need to consider setting up continuing professional development associations similar to the ones we have in the UK – whereby members advance through a professional hierarchy through self study and examinations, in professions such as HR, accounting, finance, IT etc. Then, even if the company cannot offer them roles which have an instant career development impact, young employees can gain satisfaction from developing their knowledge and skills, supported by their employer.
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