Japanese expectations out of whack with reality, but is part-time work ethos the way to go?

Courtesy of Mutuantfrog, an excellent blog on Japan, I came across this pretty troubling depiction of what the Japanese expect out of life, and what is clearly unattainable given today’s socio-economic configuration.

A recent government white paper found that a large portion of women in their 20s want to be housewives. Not only that, another survey found that around 40% of unmarried women aged 25-35 want a husband who makes at least Y6 million a year. Sadly for them, only 3.5% of unmarried men in that age bracket actually make that much.

This kind of typical post-war middle-class lifestyle is pretty out of reach in a country that’s still struggling through two decades of recession, where the last Prime Minister’s attempt to de-regulate and dismantle the carefully-constructed social contract that included life-time employment, and where society is certain to be confronted with more uncertainty in the near future.

In the translated op-ed , the author suggests breaking down the rigid structure of Japan’s full-time employment system, and make part-time work a more systematic and acceptable feature of Japans labour landscape.

If embraced by the people, I can see how those changes may very well draw out stay-at-home moms into the work force. It may also steady overall future productivity if the policy succeeds in pushing up low birth rates that is plunging the nation into demographic abyss.

But is this really ideal? A more socially acceptable and entrenched part-time work culture will most likely be accessed by women, especially in a still traditionalist society where gender roles persist.  Will this kind of labour arrangement be the right transitional model to engage and entice more women into the labour force?

Take a look at the Dutch experience with part-time work.

Back in the 80s, labour force participation of prime-aged women in the Netherlands was one of the lowest in the OECD.  Over the next two decades, a part-time work structure gradually emerged and attracted more and more women to the work force.

But contrary to Scandinavia, where women transitioned rather quickly to full-time work, women in the Netherlands stayed with their part-time arrangements.  It now has one of the highest (I think Japan has since 2001 overtaken the Netherlands) female part-time employment rates in the OECD.  Which is to say, most of the women that work in the Netherlands, work part time.  And the percentage that actually does work is a rather abysmal 55%.

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Ideal? I think not.

During the 1980s and 1990s, part-time work was praised as a way to increase the low female participation rates. However, the attitude towards part-time work among policymakers has changed. Now, a part-time job is often considered a trap in which the full potential of women remains unexploited. Part-time working women are paid less and have fewer opportunities for promotions. Therefore, increasing working hours would be beneficial for their labour market position. Stimulating female labour supply is also considered to be a potential source to increase economic growth and deal with the costs of an ageing society.

So if Japan goes down this road, a more flexible employment system will contribute economically, but will probably just further entrench the gender gap.

Even in a country that’s perceived to be one of the most progressive by the rest of the world, “about 40% of both Dutch men and women think that the family would suffer if the woman would work full-time. This opinion has not changed much during the past decades and across generations”.

Additionally, if female participation in the word force is truly encouraged, then more affordable and accessible child care facilities must be available.  In Japan, as in the Netherlands, and quite distinct from Scandinavia and North America, it is complicated, expensive, and socially frowned upon to organize child-care around awkward school hours (i.e. children getting sent home at lunch at in early afternoons).

Addressing those concerns and taking away the burden of women planning their lives around the children, will probably have consierable impact on both labour market participation and birth rates in the long run.

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  • Chuck

    Dana, this is exactly the kind of writing I follow your blog to see. Great piece.

  • investoralist

    Haha, thanks Chuck, much appreciated! Support like that keeps me going!

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  • hmmmm

    Is Japanese society really that entrenched in gender roles?
    Or is it just a popular misconception put forth by the same media which stereotypes everything Japanese so their Western readership can feel “superior”?
    My wife works full time, my mother-in-law has worked part time for 20 years, and my brother-in-law’s spouse also works full time. Japanese media regularly portray working women as if it’s completely natural as well.
    It seems to me that only the Japanese equivalent to baby boomers have these kind of rigid moors — it’s a bit much to foist them onto the entire country as if nothing has changed in 70 years.
    I’d be more interested to see an article that deals with the subtleties between so-called “freelance” and “kaishain” and the potential (or lack thereof) for a cultural reform in that regard to increase productivity.