As a venture capitalist, I serve on the Japanese government’s Choosing the Future Committee. Our task is to formulate an image of what life will be like in Japan 50 years from now.
The consensus in the media is dire. By the middle of this century, the majority of Japan’s shrinking population will be elderly, while the few young people left to work will be paying heavy taxes to finance their seniors’ pensions and massive government debt.
As a perennial optimist, I refuse to accept this dark vision. In fact, my experience in venture capital makes me believe that life in Japan circa 2060 may well be more fun than it is now.
Starting with the world of work.
Ask a random bunch of people what they associate with Japan, and someone will probably mention “salarymen,” the hardworking corporate warriors who powered the country’s postwar economic rise. But technological advances may be about to render this national symbol of work-life imbalance obsolete.
More and more young people are shunning regular employment, choosing instead to work freelance, picking up jobs via the internet through so-called talent exchanges.
And this is no niche phenomenon. When oDesk and Elance, the two biggest U.S.-based online job marketplaces, merged in December 2013, they revealed that together they had 8 million freelancers registered on their two sites, who had served 2 million businesses in 180 countries, racking up billings worth $750 million in 2013 alone. The Economist reported that the value of all online work is expected to more than double between 2014 and 2018.
Japan has a number of online job marketplaces of its own. Lancers, launched in 2008, is the frontrunner. The 330,000 freelancers on its books have served 81,000 businesses for a cumulative $270 million in billings—impressive numbers given that it’s a single-country business, unlike its American rivals.
Of course, working freelance has its downsides. There’s less job security for one thing. On the other hand, you can ditch the suit, avoid the packed commuter train, stay away from sterile office environments, and avoid unproductive overtime.
It’s a tradeoff. What you lose in security, you gain in freedom. You get to do the jobs you like, when and where you want.
As an entrepreneur, the freelance model strikes me as more dynamic and flexible—and therefore more resilient—than the rigid old job-for-life model.
Education is another area where we expect to see change.
“Edtech” will transform the role of the teacher. Since many routine tasks like math drills or spelling tests can be taken care of by tablet computers, teachers will become more like coaches, free to roam the classroom and help students one-on-one.
Japan was a pioneer of offline supplementary study at juku (cram schools) like Kumon. Much of this kind of basic skills training can be moved online. In fact, I have invested in a venture called Surala whose online Star Academy is doing just that.
Of course, we don’t expect education to become wholly automated. There are areas like emotional intelligence, creative thinking, and leadership where the computer has no place.)
We also expect healthcare to be transformed out of all recognition.
The advent of apps and sensors to monitor health and wellness, combined with consultation via webcam, should lead to better public health at a lower cost. Of course, change will necessarily take time in the healthcare field, due to safety-related regulations.
But startups are already driving positive change in some of Japan’s most change-averse sectors. Take media. While media companies around the world are in upheaval with bankruptcies, spin-offs, and takeovers (like Jeff Bezos’ buyout of The Washington Post), a weird artificial calm prevails here in Japan.
Because media companies close ranks against anyone who tries to act as a change agent. Seven years ago, internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie’s reward for attempting a hostile takeover of a Japanese TV station was getting thrown in jail. In the 1990s, media mogul Rupert Murdoch uncharacteristically gave up and sold his stake in another Japanese TV station after being stonewalled for a whole year.
Japanese newspapers were also slow to embrace digital, mainly because they have so much invested in their nationwide sales-and-delivery networks. Nonetheless, December 2012 saw the launch of SmartNews, a Japanese app that serves up a news menu based on whichever stories are being most read, shared, and tweeted.
SmartNews has over 3 million active users and has concluded content-sharing agreements with numerous Japanese media outlets (including some of the biggest and most conservative ones).
Newsflash! Even the media is changing.
So what will Japan look like in fifty years’ time?
The average person will be older, sure, but they’ll also be healthier, less overworked, better informed, and more independent. The efforts of digital startups should help make Japan’s future a lot more colorful and less conformist than its monochrome salaryman past.
Looks like it’s time to say, “Sayonara, salarymen!”