UNLIKE an earthquake, a demographic disaster does not strike without warning. Japan’s population of 127m is predicted to fall to 90m by 2050. As recently as 1990, working-age Japanese outnumbered children and the elderly by seven to three. By 2050 the ratio will be one to one. As Japan grows old and feeble, where will its companies find dynamic, energetic workers?The article in the Economist is inspired by a new report just out from the Center for Work-Life Policy in New York City.
Japanese firms are careful to recycle paper but careless about wasting female talent. Some 66% of highly educated Japanese women who quit their jobs say they would not have done so if their employers had allowed flexible working arrangements. The vast majority (77%) of women who take time off work want to return. But only 43% find a job, compared with 73% in America. Of those who do go back to work, 44% are paid less than they were before they took time off, and 40% have to accept less responsibility or a less prestigious title. Goldman Sachs estimates that if Japan made better use of its educated women, it would add 8.2m brains to the workforce and expand the economy by 15%—equivalent to about twice the size of the country’s motor industry.
There was a time when this might have been true throughout Asia, but that is less true now than it used to be. Japan seems now to be something of an outlier on its attitudes towards women in business.
Japanese companies have much to learn from the gaijin [foreigners]. IBM Japan encourages flexitime. BMKK, the Japanese arm of Bristol-Myers Squibb, a drug firm, has a programme to woo back women who have taken maternity leave. Why can’t native Japanese firms do likewise? A few, such as Shiseido, a cosmetics firm, try hard. But apparently small concessions to work-life balance can require a big change in the local corporate mindset. Working from home should be easy: everyone has broadband. But Japanese bosses are not used to judging people by their performance, sighs Yoko Ishikura, an expert on business strategy at Keio University.