Part-time drive risks stability of Japan
By Scott North
Since Adam Smith promoted the division of labor as the path to "universal opulence" in the 17th century, it has been the engine of productivity and a major determinant of social structure. Changes in the division of labor portend changes in the division of property, power, and social honor. For most of the post-World War II period, Japan's most significant division of labor has been between regular employees, unlimited in duties or duration of work (ie permanent or ''lifetime employment", more common for males in larger enterprises), and non-regular employees (various kinds of limited
term contracts or hourly wage jobs, generally more common for women and in smaller firms).
The social order created by this division of labor was seen as a fair reflection of results of meritocratic educational competition and taken-for-granted gender roles; perceived fairness contributed to Japan's postwar social stability.
In the early 1990s, Japan executed a managed drawdown of regular employees as firms struggled to cope with effects of the collapse of the famous asset bubble. The concurrent, sharp rise in non-regulars - from about 10% in 1990 to about 40% of the labor force today (and more than 50% of younger workers (Morioka 2013)) - has given rise to insecurity and anxiety.
Competition for good regular posts is intense; some posts, while regular, are not good, and about a fifth of non-regulars want regular employment but can't find it (MHLW 2013, 30-32). Only 41.5% of available jobs are regular positions (Mainichi Shinbun 2014).
Meanwhile, regular workers may face demands for increased productivity that diminish the status advantages of regular employment. The status gap between workers in the two types of employment, however, still represents differential life chances - time binds and work-life imbalance for better compensated regulars, and underpay and poor career possibilities for non-regulars, who get less respect and may receive less than a living wage for a nearly 40-hour workweek.
The relative poverty of the working poor is linked to delays in marriage and consequent birthrate declines. This growing imbalance in (and between) the lives of regular "core" and non-regular "peripheral" workers is starting to threaten social reproduction and Japanís long-term social stability. More ...
Scott North is Professor of Sociology in the School of Human Sciences at Osaka University. He is the author of The Work-Family Dilemmas of Japan's Salarymen, in Men, Wage Work and Family, edited by Paula McDonald and Emma Jeanes (Routledge, 2012) and other papers on work and family life in Japan.