Toyota’s President Akio Toyoda made the headlines in May 2019 by saying that if there are not more incentives to continue employing people, lifetime employment can no longer be maintained. Toyota has still been sticking to the seniority based system common to many Japanese companies where the promotion path is to become kacho (team leader) by 40, then bucho (general manager) in the second half of your 40s. If you drop off this path, there is no return to it. “Which means that if you are in your 50s, with no people reporting to you and no major work to do, it is hard to be motivated, and yet because your salary is Y12m a year (around $110,000), nobody quits” says an employee in his 40s, in a Nikkei Business magazine special feature.
Up until recently, those in their 50s who were in the production side would be taken away from the production line but now, because of a labour shortage, they need to be kept on the production line. So from 2012, Toyota introduced new appraisal systems and health policies, so that those in the 50s can also be productive. The lifetime employment problem is more acute with those in office functions. A Toyota source says “up until the Lehman Shock, they could hide somewhere even if they did not have much work to do, but now the “unemployed layer” is becoming more apparent.”
Toyota has already shrunk its board directors down from 55 to 23 and merged several executive level layers into one. It has been in a series of negotiations with the company union on revising the appraisal system and increasing mid-career hires. Toyota group companies such as Denso, J-TEKT and Aisin are following suit.
“Men in their 50s are inflexible. They are a drag on reform”
Outside Toyota, Hiroaki Nakanishi, now chair of Japanese business federation Keidanren, formerly President of Hitachi has also said that “we have reached a limit to how far a company can run its business on the precondition of lifetime employment”. Electronics companies who developed staff in the 1980s for their semi conductor business are now finding it hard to switch over to AI and other skillsets. “Men in their 50s are inflexible. They are a drag on reform” says the head of a Japanese manufacturer.
Japanese telecoms company KDDI conducted an internal survey to try to revitalise the rapidly growing “over 50s” segment of its workforce, only to find that most of those in their 50s were happy with staying as they were, and had no interest in becoming more energetic in their work. It has not been so much of an issue for Japan’s banks, as there was a tradition of employees in their 50s being transferred to clients. But some clients are beginning to refuse secondees from banks, if they are not adding value.
Fourth time round – a fundamental change is needed
According to Rikkyo University assistant professor Satoshi Tanaka, this is the fourth time round that the middle-senior age group has been a labour issue. The first time was directly after the oil shock in the mid 1970s, the second time was in the mid 1990s, the third was after the Lehman schock. The countermeasure after the oil shock was to second people to sister companies and subsidiaries, the countermeasure in the 1990s was to introduce more performance based HR systems. The Lehman shock aftermath saw more “early retirement” systems (although I saw this being introduced in the 1990s when I was in Japan too) and now the 4th time round, the focus is on how to “revitalise” those in the mid-senior age groups rather than get rid of them, due to Japan’s labour shortage.
Nikkei Business contrasts Japan’s “membership system” with the “job system” of the West. Japan has the three treasures of a company union, seniority based promotion and lifetime employment in contrast to the harsher world of the West, where there are job descriptions, it is easier to fire people and unions are by sector. The consensus fourth time round seems to be that a fundamental rethink of Japan’s HR system is needed.
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