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Economy

Advice for Japan's dangerously complacent millennials

Don't be replaced by robots -- acquire 21st century skills and work with them

Japan's millennials include Olympic silver medal-winning figure skater Mao Asada -- but not all are quite so open to taking risks.

Japan's millennials have been neglected. The national preoccupations are those of one of the world's fastest-aging societies: pensions, care of the elderly, political stability. Even the nation's recent noted innovations reflect this -- robotics and artificial intelligence technology to serve an increasingly dependent population in the midst of an acute labor shortage.

So what of the generation just making their way in the world of work? In Japan, the millennials -- the first generation of tech savvy "digital natives" born in the global baby boom of 1980 to 2000, give or take a few years -- are polarizing into two distinct groups. And this is a trend that is shoring up problems for them and for Japan as a whole.

Like Western millennials, they have all grown used to economic crisis. Having lived through Japan's "lost decades" of slow growth and deflation, the global financial crisis of 2008, and the 2011 earthquake and its aftermath, they are accustomed to financial jeopardy and precarious employment.

In Japan, a smaller group is more at ease with the flip side of this insecurity: greater freedom, rapid change and the chance to be their own boss. Much like typical millennials elsewhere, they are largely comfortable with the globalization of recent decades. They are also seen as independent thinkers, socially conscious and willing to take risks to compete in the global arena. Among their numbers are stars such as Masahiro Tanaka, who plays for the New York Yankees in Major League Baseball; Kei Nishikori, the world's seventh-ranked tennis player; and Mao Asada, a silver medal-winning Olympic skater who announced her retirement in April.

The road taken

The majority of their cohort, by contrast, is more focused on the world immediately around them. They increasingly opt to stay at home rather than work or study abroad -- even, in hundreds of thousands of extreme cases, hikikomori, a term used to describe those who have withdrawn from society and live their lives within the confines of a single room in their parents' homes. 

Politically, they appear comfortable with the conservative status quo. Whereas millennials in the U.S. voted against Donald Trump and in the U.K. against Brexit, young voters in Japan helped Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a sweeping victory in the 2016 upper house election.

In terms of employment, security is a priority. During the annual hiring season clusters can be seen in the lobbies of venerable corporations offering the prize of lifetime employment with generous benefits -- 20-something graduates buttoned into identical off-the-peg black "recruit suits" and white shirts, all hoping not to appear too unique to HR officers with the power to determine their fortunes. The unlucky ones are often consigned to years of precarious temporary contracts.

For these strangers to the "good times" before the early 1990s collapse of the asset price bubble, there is little to suggest their own enterprise will bring them a better life than those of their parents. So we see a cohort playing it safe -- rule takers, not rule breakers.

Applying to study or work overseas takes time and effort -- meaning any applicants would risk missing their one-off opportunity to secure a job for life. It would also take strong language skills, but Japan is ranked low in English ability. And it costs money -- a problem for many, given that relative poverty levels have hit record highs.

Besides, there is so much to be found at home and relatively little to be gained by going overseas. Why fly all the way to Florida when Tokyo has its own Disneyland? A 12-hour trip to Broadway seems a big ask when blockbuster shows can be seen at home.

A matter of perspective

Abenomics, Abe's pro-growth economic program, seeks to address the endemic problems of poor innovation and low productivity. But, if the aspiration of those entering the workplace is to fit into a system based on hierarchy and deference rather than merit and creativity, the omens are not good.

AI and robotics present both significant opportunities and an imminent threat for Japanese millennials -- and they seem dangerously complacent about both.

While Japan has taken a lead in developing cutting-edge technologies, its workers are in a particularly dangerous position. A study by The Nikkei and the Financial Times based on data collected by McKinsey Global Institute indicates that the country has the highest proportion among developed countries of work at least partly replaceable by robots -- 56% compared with 48% for Germany and 46% for the U.S.

For those who equip themselves with the skills demanded by a digitally connected global economy, the opportunities to work with robots rather than being replaced by them are there for the taking. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry estimates the country is already short of 15,000 engineers in this sector, rising to almost 50,000 by 2020. The industry is turning to China to fill the gap.

In its favor, Japan already boasts a working culture based on reaching consensus without confrontation, offering the nation's millennials the skills to collaborate and solve complex problems with a diverse range of colleagues given the opportunity. And, like their counterparts everywhere else, they embrace rapidly evolving technology in their day-to-day lives. With the support and encouragement to develop an outward-looking spirit -- and to make their own mistakes -- there is no reason they should not wrest control of the nation's future from older generations.

Yet in a country where the education system is often outdated and inward-looking, from kindergarten to university, this will prove no easy task. On the part of government and wider society, it will take a healthy dose of creative thinking, entrepreneurialism and a readiness to take risks. Archetypal millennial qualities, as it happens.

Yoko Ishikura is professor emeritus of Hitotsubashi University.

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