Japanese youth search for stability in a world without growth

At the age of 25, Mr Tanigaki is on his second stint as a ronin — originally meaning a “masterless samurai” but long used to describe a student or jobseeker on a quest for stability.

Seven years ago, the native of Urayasu in Chiba prefecture was attending a series of cramming schools to improve his grades in an attempt to enhance his university prospects. Now, having completed a degree, he is seeking a full-time job at a company that will pass a critical test: his mother must recognise its name.

Like many Japanese of his generation, Mr Tanigaki — he does not want to give his first name in case it affects his employment chances — reached adulthood in an economy where interest rates have essentially been zero for his entire life, stagnation has become the norm and incomes have been frozen at a level at which he cannot realistically ever expect to feel wealthy. He has no mortgage, car loan, credit card or student debt.

“It’s true we don’t have those same burdens as our parents. But I, my friends, my former university classmates, we do all feel a bigger burden than that,” said Mr Tanigaki.

“We have to support a country that has too much debt and too many old people. I’m not interested in taking a risk, and I don’t really know anyone who is.”

This was echoed by other ronin, students and young white-collar workers in Tokyo interviewed by the FT. Those who have studied the long-term effects of Japan’s economy on its society say it has created a growing aversion to risk.

Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist at Chuo University, described a society that instinctively hates risk and has been pushed even further into that dislike by a desire for what earlier generations considered a normal life.

According to Mari Miura, a political scientist professor at Sophia University in Tokyo, the central problem is that this generation has never known interest rates or what it is like to live in a period of sustained growth, despite residual prosperity in the world’s third-biggest economy.

Japanese in their 20s “don’t get the idea of growth; their world view is that the economy doesn’t move at all”, she said. This has intensified the need of young middle-class people to cling to what they have because, although they are pessimistic about the future, the present does not feel terrible.

“The economic and demographic numbers make the future look so grim. They believe the pie is shrinking, so if they do get a piece, they have to stick to it. The priority is stability. Nobody has big dreams any more,” said Prof Miura.

A study published earlier this year by Hiroshi Ishida, a professor at Tokyo University’s Institute of Social Science, found a record 49 per cent of respondents aged 20 to 31 thought life for their children would be worse than for them.

Line chart of Average real wages, rebased showing Some parts of Europe share Japan's stagnant wages

These attitudes have contributed to the halving of Japan’s marriage rate from about 10 per 1,000 population in the early 1970s to 4.8 in 2019, Prof Ishida said.

In the two decades from 1999 to 2019 the mean age of first marriage rose by more than 2.5 years, to over 31 for grooms and 29.6 for brides. In 2015, a record 23.4 per cent of men reached 50 without marrying.

“Young Japanese think the system is geared towards the elderly, and they feel the sense of burden,” said Prof Ishida. “They know they will have to work harder to support all this, but they also know they won’t even benefit from the pension system because it will not be able to sustain them when they reach retirement age.”

In 2019 Japan’s population shrank at the rate of roughly one person per minute, and the job market has far more jobs than applicants. Yet that has not reduced the ferocity of competition.

FT Series: Lessons From Japan

As developed economies struggle to recover from the pandemic, what lessons can be learnt from Japan, which has been battling low growth and interest rates for decades?

November 23: Fearing prolonged stagnation, governments are looking to Tokyo’s experience

November 24: Adam Posen: ‘When Japanese policy turned round, so did the economy

November 25: Can a Japan-style public investment boom save the global economy?

November 26: What ‘Mrs Watanabe’ can tell investors about how to cope with low returns

November 27: Living with stagnation — the experience of Japanese youth

Temple University anthropologist Sachiko Horiguchi said a decline in the beliefs that underpinned Japanese society — of meritocracy that would reward people’s efforts and a government that offered long-term social protections — had fuelled a dogma of self-reliance.

This has left Japan’s young with the idea that if you fail, you are on your own; the fear of a wrong step has become paralysing, worsening competition for university places and jobs.

“It was easier for our parents’ generation because basically they knew if they worked hard it would kind of be OK,” said Manabu Ishida, a ronin maths student. “We have to think more carefully than they did. I want a job that lasts, but I’m sure I will move jobs many times.”

Japanese youth also face worsening inequalities such as the massive expansion of the non-regular labour market, which has created a bloc of workers living on about ¥2m ($19,120) a year with little prospect of pay rises.

A commuter at Ginza Station in Tokyo. Young Japanese grew up in an economy with interest rates at zero, in which stagnation has become the norm © Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty

“That affects the prospects of marriage, of settling down and of reproducing the families they grew up in,” Prof Horiguchi said. “When you see that in your future, it’s hard to have any shared feelings with the previous generation.”

She argued that the conservatism that has gripped the younger generation was a rational response to the economic pressures created over the last 20 years, citing as an example the uniform black suits worn by her students as they prepare for job interview season.

That contrasts sharply with photographs of jobseekers in the optimistic days of the 1980s, when women in particular wore bright colours and adventurous fashion for interviews.

“Nobody wants to take the risk now,” said Prof Horiguchi. “Because they look around and fewer places seem to offer the stability they want.”

Pedestrians in Shinbashi, Tokyo. The conservatism gripping Japan’s younger generation is a rational response to the economic pressures of the last 20 years, some academics argue © Sochiro Koriyama/Bloomberg

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