Line graph of the proportion of the population over 65 years of age (%) showing the increase in age

Japanese youth are looking for stability in a world without growth

At the age of 25, Mr. Tanigaki is in his second stint as a ronin – originally a “masterless samurai” but has long been used to describe a student or job seeker looking for stability.

Seven years ago, the Urayasu native attended a number of cramming schools in Chiba Prefecture to improve his grades and improve his prospects for university. Now, after completing his studies, he is looking for a full-time job in a company that will pass a critical test: his mother has to recognize the name.

Like many Japanese of his generation, Mr. Tanigaki – he does not want to use his first name if it affects his employment opportunities – reached adulthood in an economy where interest rates have been essentially zero all his life, stagnation has become the norm, and incomes have become frozen to a level where realistically he can never expect to feel rich. He has no mortgage, car loan, credit card, or student debt.

“It’s true, we don’t have the same burdens as our parents. But me, my friends, my former classmates at the university, we all feel more stressed, ”said Mr. Tanigaki.

They believe the cake is shrinking. . . The priority is stability. Nobody dreams big anymore

“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 know anyone who is. “

This has been corroborated by other ronin, college students, and youth workers in Tokyo interviewed by the FT. Those who have studied the long-term impact of the Japanese economy on their societies say it has generated growing risk aversion.

Masahiro Yamada, a sociologist at Chuo University, described a society that instinctively hates risk and was further driven into aversion by a desire for what earlier generations viewed as normal life.

According to Mari Miura, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo, the central problem is that, despite the remaining prosperity in the world’s third largest world, this generation has never known interest rates or life in a period of sustained economic growth.

Japanese in their twenties “have no idea about growth; Your worldview is that the economy is not moving at all, ”she said. This has heightened the need for young midsize businesses to hold on to what they have because while they may be pessimistic about the future, the present doesn’t feel terrible.

“The economic and demographic numbers make the future look so bleak. They believe the cake is shrinking. So if you get a piece, you have to stick to it. The priority is stability. Nobody has big dreams anymore, ”said Prof. Miura.

A study published earlier this year by Hiroshi Ishida, professor at the Institute of Social Sciences at Tokyo University, found that 49 percent of respondents aged 20 to 31 thought life was worse for their children than it was for you.

Line chart of average real wages, re-based, shows that some parts of Europe share stagnant wages in Japan

These attitudes have helped halve the Japanese marriage rate from around 10 per 1,000 residents in the early 1970s to 4.8 in 2019, Prof. Ishida said.

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

“Young Japanese believe that the system is geared towards the elderly and feel burdened,” said Prof. Ishida. “They know that they have to work harder to support all of this, but they also know that they will not even benefit from the pension system because it cannot support them when they reach retirement age.”

In 2019, Japan’s population shrank at the rate of about one person per minute, and the labor market has far more jobs than applicants. However, this has not diminished the ferocity of the competition.

FT Series: Lessons from Japan

What lessons can be learned from Japan, which has struggled with low growth and low interest rates for decades, if developed countries find it difficult to recover from the pandemic?

November 23: Governments fear continued stagnation and look to Tokyo’s experience

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

November 26th: What ‘Mrs Watanabe’ can tell investors about dealing with low returns

November 27th: Living with stagnation – the experience of Japanese youth

Temple University anthropologist Sachiko Horiguchi said a decline in beliefs in Japanese society – the meritocracy, which would reward people’s efforts and a government that provides long-term social protection – has fueled a dogma of self-reliance.

This has given Japan’s youth the idea that if you fail, you will be on your own. The fear of taking the wrong step has become paralyzing and intensifies competition for study places and jobs.

“It was easier for our parents’ generation because they basically knew it would be okay if they worked hard,” said Manabu Ishida, a ronin math student. “We have to think more carefully than they do. I want a job that will last, but I am sure that I will change a lot of jobs. “

Japanese youth are also facing worsening inequalities, such as the massive expansion of the irregular labor market, which has created a bloc of workers living on about 2 million yen (US $ 19,120) a year with little prospect of wage increases.

A commuter at Ginza Station in Tokyo. Young Japanese grew up in a zero interest rate economy where stagnation has become the norm. © Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty

“That affects the prospects of getting married, settling down, and reproducing the families they were raised in,” said Prof. Horiguchi. “When you see that in your future, it’s difficult to have feelings in common with the previous generation.”

She argued that the conservatism that had gripped the younger generation was a rational response to economic pressures over the past 20 years, citing the example of the uniform black suits her students wore in preparation for the interview season.

This is in sharp contrast to photographs of job seekers in the optimistic days of the 1980s, when women in particular wore bright colors and adventurous fashions for interviews.

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

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