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The choices for Japanese youth

The idea of a ‘crafted future’ of choices has resonated with young and old in a country that seems to be at a fork in the path.

15 February 2013

In The Shift I wrote of the ‘default future’ and the ‘crafted future’. It is the ‘crafted future’ that emerges when we actively make choices about the future with some understanding of the consequences of these choices.
67SylviaMoritzpickmeup482x271The idea of the ‘crafted future’ was very much on my mind this week as I spoke to journalists, students and workers in Tokyo. I was in Japan to support The Shift, which since its launch in autumn 2012 has become one of the best selling business books in the country. It seems that the idea of a ‘crafted future’ of choices and of consequences has resonated with young and old in a country that appears to be at a fork in the path. This piece is written for the many hundreds of people I spoke with this week, the hundreds of thousands of Japanese people who have read The Shift, and for anyone who is interested in the future of corporate Japan and Gen Y.


Be a Passive Child or a Volitional Adult?


Reflecting on my time in Tokyo, it seems to me that now is a time of profound choices for Japanese workers, and particularly the Gen Y generation of Japan. Let me describe these choices in the context of the nature of the relationship between corporation and worker.

The traditional relationship between the corporation and a worker across the world has been ‘parent to child’. The corporate ‘parent’ provides for the worker ‘child’. They do this through the promise of a lifetime of employment, through clearly demarcated promotion based on seniority, and by well-defined hierarchies of decision making. In this ultra secure context, the role of the worker ‘child’ is to behave in a passive, disciplined manner, by working long hours, rarely questioning authority and by fitting into the hierarchy.

In much of the world this ‘parent to child’ relationship has been swept away by a combination of cost cutting corporations and more feisty and out spoken employees. For a variety of reasons, in many Japanese corporations the ‘parent to child’ relationship has until recently remained intact. However, as Japanese corporations such as Sony and Panasonic battle it out relatively unsuccessfully with other corporations such as Apple and Samsung, this corporate culture of ‘parent to child’ is coming under increasing pressure and indeed being questioned by the young.

There is an alternative to the ‘parent to child’ relationship. This is the  ‘adult to adult’ relationship. This removes the predictability and comfort of the ‘parent to child’, but in its place is the possibility of more freedom, creativity and choice. The challenge of this relationship is how to become more volitional, more able to understand the choices available, and more capable of grasping the consequences. The challenge becomes one of making a transition from being a ‘passive child’ to a ‘volitional adult’.

Over the course of the week in Tokyo I have been asked many times about my opinion on how this transition can be achieved. Here are my top three tips for making the transition as a ‘passive child’ to a ‘volitional adult’.

First, widen your gaze. The world is joining up at an extraordinary pace – these emerging networks are creating fast running streams of knowledge, ideas and projects. From Chile to Russia young people are connecting to each other with virtual sites like InnoCentive (reference link here) acting as platforms for creativity. Those outside of these global networks are in danger of becoming isolated from this enormous global creative pool of energy. Yet there is a real risk of Japanese youngsters becoming isolated from these global streams of knowledge and ideas as Japan’s ultra-homogenous society provides few glimpses for them of other ways of living, and their inability to read English marginalizes the possibilities for global connection. Being a ‘volitional adult’ is about knowing the extent of the choices available, and it is only through widening the gaze that these choices become clearer. Building the diverse networks of the ‘Big Ideas Crowd’ will be crucial.


Next, speak out. A child may argue with a parent – but ultimately the nexus of power remains with the parent. A good ‘adult to adult’ relationship has a more balanced nexus of power. It is based on conversation, mutual understanding and joint action taking. The basis of this is being able to speak out and have your voice heard. If employees are to become more volitional they have to have the courage to speak out about what they believe to be right. One area of ‘speaking out’ that seems to me to be crucial at this stage in the development of corporate Japan is the role of women at work. Few senior figures in corporate Japan are women, and in the recent World Economic Forum ‘Gender Gap’ report the country ranked 101 out of 120 countries. (good to have reference link here). If the 50% of the potential Japanese workforce who are women are unable to have their voice heard in an ‘adult to adult’ way, then this severely reduces their capacity to be a ‘volitional adult’.


Then take courageous action.  Being a ‘volitional adult’ is about understanding the choices available (by widening your gaze), debating these choices and consequences (through being prepared to speak out), and then exercising choice (through taking courageous action). This stands in direct contrast to the ‘passive child’. What might these choices look like for young Japanese workers? As I mentioned in my last blog – there is a growing consensus that youth unemployment is becoming one of the scourges of modern society. Research shows clearly that large corporations are rarely the primary creator of new jobs. Instead new jobs are created in start-ups and medium size companies. It seems that there is a great opportunity for some of the youth in Japan to become entrepreneurs – yet to date few have taken this path. Faced with the comfort of the traditional ‘parent to child’ corporate relationship, the outside world of the ‘adult to adult’ can seem cold and uninviting. Yet there are those who are taking the risk. At The Hub in Tokyo (find website) I met young entrepreneurs working together and connecting with others across the world. Over the coming decades, Japan Gen Y’s will build deep competence in how to support an ageing population, how to live in a civilized way in a ‘re-balanced world’, and how to balance industrialization and the resource needs of the natural world. These are all skills and insights that its young entrepreneurs as well as its traditional corporations can take to the rest of the world.


Widening your gaze, being prepared to speak out, and taking courageous action are ways of being that will be increasingly crucial in the joined up, global world that Japanese Gen Y’s are entering. Now is the time for Japan’s Gen Y generation to make the shift.

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