In the UK I would be regarded as part of Generation X but in Japan I am in the Bubble Gang, of people aged 45-49 who joined a major Japanese company straight out of university between 1988 and 1992 – at the very end of Japan’s economic “Bubble Era”. I graduated in 1988 but did not join Mitsubishi Corporation until 1990, spending two years at a US PR company first. And actually, because I transferred to Mitsubishi’s Tokyo headquarters in 1992, my company ID number started with 92, and I was therefore regarded as being a member of the 1992 graduate intake, despite my protests.
After a period selling building materials in Japan, I transferred to the HR department, where we tried to set up an international HR system which was intended to make the year of joining less relevant and therefore Japanese traditional seniority based promotion less rigid. This was meant to ensure non-Japanese, mid-career hires had more chance of being promoted appropriately, but twenty years on, elements of the old system still persist in Mitsubishi and elsewhere. I was given the title of manager at the time, but didn’t really manage anything in the Western sense of the word – having no team or budget under my control.
If I had stuck with the company into my late 30s I may well have become a ‘proper’ manager, attaining the kacho (team leader or section chief) grade under the Japanese system, and who knows, ten or so years later maybe even made it to bucho (General Manager – head of a department) as some of my friends from that time have recently done.
Contemplating that future at the age of 33, when so many of my MBA class were already running businesses, put a chill in my soul and I decided to leave Mitsubishi after 9 enjoyable years.
It’s not often you get a chance to see how your career might have panned out if a different choice had been made, but thanks to a special feature in the Nikkei Business magazine on the Bubble Gang, I now have more insight, and it has reassured me that I probably took the right path.
The article sets out the following phases:
- Entrance ceremony day 1988-1992
So many new graduates joined – up to a 1000 in some cases – that the company has to hire the Budokan for the entrance ceremony
- 2-3 years on – Japan’s “Loadsamoney”
A separate envelope full of cash is handed out at bonus time, making a 24 hour working day bearable. Hanakin (Flower Friday – the equivalent of POETS day in the UK) drinking to the small hours, including Y50,000 bottles of champagne and waving Y10,000 notes to flag down taxis
- 5 years on – the Bubble bursts
It’s a slow burst, from the initial bubble burst in 1990, when asset prices started to plummet, through to 1997, with the Asian financial crisis, and the collapse of Hokkaido Bank, the Long Term Credit Bank of Japan and Yamaichi Securities. Friends start to lose their jobs. The wife wants to go back to her family.
- 10 years on – no team, but performance based pay introduced
Companies like Fujitsu and Mitsui introduce performance based and potential based pay systems. You start to worry about what level of bonus others in your cohort are getting. Due to a hiring freeze, you don’t have any juniors working for you, so end up having to do admin work yourself.
- 15 years on – the company recovers, but your pay doesn’t
Thanks to a cheaper yen, exports boom and the company results improve, but your pay level does not. Some of the other high fliers in your cohort make it to kacho, but you don’t. Your daughter, whom you struggled to get into a private high school, seems to have lost her mojo too.
- 20 years on – the Lehman Shock
Every industry suddenly goes into recession. Elpida Memory enters bankruptcy and Panasonic and Sony are in tatters. You start to envy the old guys with their golden goodbyes and full pensions.
- 25 years on – what do I do now?
Sharp seems to be on its last legs, Toshiba is hit by an accounting scandal. Is my company OK? Drinking with old friends, there are more grey hairs and wheezing than before. Even your highflier friend has applied for early retirement. Younger colleagues are looking at you, still only a kacho, coldly. Should I stay or start my own business or change companies?
The feature then looks at the fate of one man at Sharp. He is called to a seminar by a department called “People Making”, which appears to him to be a firing squad. They show him a chart of the pay offs available to people of his age under the voluntary retirement scheme. He then has a meeting with his General Manager, who tells him to stay. His colleague of the same age is not so lucky, and is told that as there isn’t a job for him, he should contact the employment agencies who are both under contract to Sharp to assist with re-employment, elsewhere.
It seems to be a repeat of the mid 1990s, when HR departments used similar tactics to get rid of the bulge of post war baby boomers, who joined companies in the late 1970s. Apparently the Bubble Gang are the biggest cohort in most companies, comprising 1/6 of the total employees, but only 1/3 have made it to kacho or bucho level.
In response to this, over 60% of companies surveyed by the Nikkei have reviewed their seniority based pay system or introduced voluntary early retirement schemes. Conversely, 59% of the Bubble Gang, the highest percentage of all the cohorts, feel their company has betrayed them – either because they were not promoted as expected or their pay level is not as they hoped. However the vast majority want to continue working for their company, at least for the time being. No surprise really, because you have to wonder how easy it is going to be for someone who has worked for the same company for 25 years to find a job elsewhere.
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