Arata Kusunoki, who has held various senior management positions in an insurance company, is the author of several books on the meaning of work, and why “ojisan” salarymen (literally means ‘uncles’ ie middle aged men) get paid well regardless of whether they are productive.
The roots of this are in the way that large numbers of fresh graduates are hired by Japanese companies without regard to their ability or suitability and are developed to be generalists, with the result that it is assumed it doesn’t really matter who is in which job and not much attention is paid to individual talents or skills. This worked reasonably well in periods of growth but when the number of jobs higher up the pyramid is smaller and shrinking in a period of recession, there are too many people from the cohort for the jobs available.
Those who are surplus to requirements are not given any training or development and left to their own devices. The HR system does not evaluate to what extent the job they are doing adds value or produces results, but simply evaluates people by comparing them with other people in their cohort. “Only Japanese companies have such a system” says Kusunoki.
People lose their motivation, and yet their working life is longer than before. Previously, retirement was at 55, and life expectancy was no more than 10 or so years after that. Now, the retirement age is 60, and even 65 if the employee is re-employed, and life expectancy is well into the 80s.
The 40s are a key point, says Kusonoki. It is the time when Japanese employees start to wonder if they really want to carry on doing the same job, in the same company. “They spiritually retire”. They don’t see any opportunity for personal growth, and don’t know whether they are adding any value. Consequently, illness, crises and quitting to work elsewhere or start up on your own are very common at this point. But currently, Japanese companies are doing nothing about it.
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