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‘Quiet resignation’ among Japanese workers hints at a deeper problem

A workforce not motivated enough to excel cannot contribute to economic growth or counter demographic challenges
Japanese workers walk under the under-construction 'Grand Roof,' known as the Ring, one of the world's largest wooden structures, at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima Island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka, on April 2.

Japanese workers walk under the under-construction 'Grand Roof,' known as the Ring, one of the world's largest wooden structures, at the site of the 2025 Expo on Yumeshima Island, an area of reclaimed land in Osaka, on April 2. (Photo: AFP)

Published: May 16, 2024 04:00 AM GMT
Updated: May 16, 2024 09:36 AM GMT

In recent years, a disturbing trend has emerged among Japanese workers, particularly the youth, characterized by a general sense of apathy towards work.

This trend is referred to as "quiet resignation," a term first coined by American career coach and influencer Brian Creely around two years ago. It involves employees doing the bare minimum required, with no active pursuit of job satisfaction or career advancement.

A survey conducted by Mynavi, a Tokyo-based employment support service, reveals that nearly half of full-time employees embrace this mindset, indicating a significant shift in work values.

Mynavi released its inaugural "Full-time Employee Work-Life Integration Survey" in February this year. It involved 3,000 full-time employees, both male and female, aged between 20 and 59.

The survey explored the concept of work-life integration, which seeks to harmonize an individual’s professional and personal life seamlessly, a concept that has recently begun to draw attention.

Several factors could be contributing to this growing trend of workplace apathy, particularly among younger workers.

"The emphasis on time over talent discourages innovation and ambition"

For instance, the intense competition for managerial positions: the aging population in Japan has led to a glut of older employees who continue to occupy high-level positions. This saturation at the top creates a bottleneck effect, stifling the career progression opportunities for younger generations.

The fierce competition for a limited number of available managerial roles discourages many, leading them to disengage from aspiring for these positions.

Also, in many traditional Japanese companies, career progression is less about merit and more about seniority. This system can demotivate talented young professionals who see little correlation between effort and reward.

The emphasis on time over talent discourages innovation and ambition, as promotions and pay raises are often predetermined by age and years of service rather than actual performance or contributions.

Another factor could be the COVID-19 pandemic which has permanently altered the work landscape, with remote work becoming more common.

Mynavi’s survey highlighted a shift towards work-life integration, where employees seek to balance their job responsibilities with personal lives without clear boundaries. While this has benefits, it also blurs the lines between work and personal time, potentially leading to a lack of distinct professional identity and reduced engagement in work.

"Japan's public debt remains one of the highest among developed nations"

Of course, we also have to consider strict economic reasons, due to the stagnation and uncertainties ahead, especially with the current much depreciated yen.

Japan’s economy faces ongoing challenges characterized by modest growth, demographic pressures, and shifts in the global market.

After a contraction of 4.5 percent in GDP in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Japan's economy saw a rebound with a growth rate of 1.7 percent in 2021, reflecting a gradual recovery fueled by domestic demand and export growth. However, this recovery has been uneven, with the GDP growth rate slowing to around 0.9 percent in 2023, indicating persistent economic vulnerabilities.

Japan's public debt remains one of the highest among developed nations, exceeding 250 percent of its GDP. This massive debt burden limits the government's fiscal flexibility to implement expansive economic policies.

Meanwhile, inflation in Japan, traditionally low, has started to rise, reaching an annual rate of 2.5 percent in early 2024, partly driven by global energy price increases and supply chain disruptions.

But probably the most significant factor is the rigidity of many Japanese workplaces, with their strict hierarchies and slow pace of change, which is increasingly at odds with the values of a workforce that desires flexibility and a healthier work-life balance.

The trend of "quiet resignation" and the broader disengagement from active career development have profound implications for both individuals and the economy.

On a personal level, this apathy can lead to a lack of fulfillment and personal growth. Economically, it poses a threat to Japan’s productivity and its ability to innovate and compete on a global scale.

A workforce not motivated to excel or innovate is less likely to contribute to the economic dynamism that Japan desperately needs to counteract its demographic challenges.

To reverse this trend, Japanese companies and policymakers must address the root causes of workplace apathy. This involves reforming employment practices to focus more on merit and performance rather than seniority.

Companies need to create clear pathways for career progression that are accessible to all employees, regardless of age, fostering a more motivating environment.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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