Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Death of a Salaryman

Every time I turn around, there's another story about how Gen-Y is going to approach the workplace in an entirely different way than their career-obsessed, workaholic, complacent, buck-crazed, conspicuously-consuming,  scaredy-cat, security-craving Baby Boomer parents.

No, the new kids on the block will not settle into boring old jobs, but will build ultra-interesting, infinitely-flexible, fully-work-life-balanced careers for themselves.

Of course, I'm probably just jealous that I didn't figure out how to get me one of these until I was into my well-advanced middle-age. Good for Gen-Y for plotting new career paths for themselves. (They may as well, given that globalization and technology make this relationship to work both inevitable and possible.)

It's interesting to learn, however, that a similar phenomenon is taking hold of Japan, as the salaryman goes Willy Loman.

If the Gen-Yers think the Gen-My-ers were corporate tools, what would they make of the salarymen, who completed traded off home life in return for security. Part of that trade-off meant hanging around the office - often falling asleep at your desk - well after hours. It wasn't necessarily about working, it was about face time. You just had to be there, even if you face was face-down on a pile of papers on your desk.

Salarymanhood also meant little pay-for-performance, little meritocracy. One for all, all for one: salaries pretty much went along in lockstep for everybody in the firm.

Another part of the trade-off meant you stuck with the same company for life - in exchange for a nice comfy pension. (Gen Y-ers who imagine that all Boomers went this route obviously haven't met the Boomers who worked in technology, financial services, manufacturing, or any number of other industries. Perhaps they are confusion the Boomers with the Greatest Generation who did, often, get to work in the same boring old place in exchange for a nice comfy pension. I will admit, us Boomers are starting to look a bit like the Greatest Generation...a little hate-that-gray in the temple, a little thickish in the waist.)

And you not only stayed at the same company for life, you may well have lived in company-subsidized housing, and vacationed at company-subsidized resorts. (How's that sound for a fun and relaxing holiday?)

Most of what we associate salarymen with is no doubt the after-work drinking. Whether entertaining clients, or heading out for a few with the boys after a long day working (and sleeping) at the office, saki and scotch were a big part of the picture.

Now it seems that fewer and fewer young professionals want to be salarymen. And as economic forces have their impact on the Japanese economy, there are fewer and fewer salaryman jobs out there anyway.

(The Economist, in recent article "Sayonara, salaryman", noted the rise in part time or temporary workers who may not have the stresses and strains of being a salaryman, but don't get any of the bennies, either.)

While, with the death of the salaryman, there will no doubt be attendant dislocations in Japanese society, one doesn't have to be an ultra-capitalist or sociologist to feel that having a career that includes bit more personal freedom, job-choice, performance incentives, and work-life balance is, overall, a good thing. And you don't have to be Carrie Nation to regard the demise of the 2 a.m. saki matches as a societal good.

Still, let's give the salarymen a bit of credit here.

In 1945, Japan was in shambles.

Out of those shambles, a couple of generations of salarymen apparently helped build the Japanese economy into one of the world's largest. (I think they're Number 2 to you-know-who.)

Imagine what they could have accomplished if they hadn't been sleep-deprived, hung over, and in a stupor half the time?

1 comment:

Mary said...

When I worked for NEC, I spent some time in Tokyo...where I was the only woman in many a meeting - excepte for the "tea ladies" who bowed in and out, serving us all.

And from what I've read the "tea ladies" are getting tired of serving tea. So, let's hear it for the men and women of Japan - they're making changes.

As for the Gen Y perspective, that's worthy of a whole real-world, offline discussion over 'toonis (Tip: Kids, you gotta move out of your parents' house before you can be Masters of the Universe. ;-)