Ask a random bunch of people what they associate with Japan, and someone will probably allude to the Japanese salaryman. These are the hardworking white collar workers who powered the country’s post-war economic rise.
The Japanese salaryman is a model of Japanese work culture: He lives for his company (at which he landed lifetime employment straight out of university or even high school). He supports his family. He works impossibly long hours. And he does it all without complaint.
But technological advances may be about to render this national symbol of work-life imbalance obsolete.
Japan’s Future Business Culture: Gig Economy Jobs
As a venture capitalist, I serve on the Japanese government’s Choosing the Future Committee. Our task is to formulate an image of Japan’s future of work: what life will be like in Japan fifty years from now.
The media would have us all believe that the future of work is dire. And they are working off of some notable facts: By the middle of this century, the majority of Japan’s shrinking population will be elderly. The few young people left to work will be paying heavy taxes to finance their seniors’ pensions and massive government debt.
But 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 far better than it is now.
Starting with the world of work.
The future is freelance.
More and more young people are shunning regular employment, choosing instead to work freelance. It’s a smart move—the internet enables them to pick up gig economy jobs that suit their passions and were previously unknown or unreachable. Not to mention, you can set your own hourly rates and earn money that might better reflect the actual effort you put in.
This is no niche phenomenon. oDesk and Elance, the two biggest US-based online job marketplaces, merged in December 2013. Suddenly, there was a bank of 8 million registered gig workers who had served 2 million businesses in 180 countries. From freelance writers and graphic designers to simple tasks like delivery groceries, their billings came to $750 million in 2013 alone.
And Statista predicts that the number of freelancers in the US will grow to over 90 million by 2028.
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.
Independent contractors face a tradeoff.
It might seem natural that business owners like myself would reject the gig economy as troublesome competition. But as an entrepreneur, I have to say the freelance model strikes me as more dynamic and flexible (and therefore more resilient) than the old and rigid lifetime employment model. I, too, find the concept of the Japanese salaryman outdated.
Of course, working freelance has its downsides. There’s less job security, for one thing. But a lot of would-be Japanese salarymen are willing to go for gig economy jobs if it means ditching the suit, avoiding packed commuter trains, steering clear of sterile office environments, and avoiding unproductive overtime.
So it’s a tradeoff. What you lose in security, you gain in freedom. You get to find work you like, when and where you want (many of the same benefits that appeal to a distributed workforce).
Evolving Industries Where the Japanese Salaryman Can’t Keep Up
The internet is making it far easier to find gig work or even side hustles. But transformations in tech that are pushing out the Japanese salaryman model don’t stop there.
Edtech will transform the role of the teacher. Routine tasks like math drills or spelling tests can be taken care of by tablet computers (saving time and rescuing teachers from burnout). As a result, it’s likely we’ll see teachers evolve from the role of group monitor to one-on-one coach, free to roam and give more individual attention to those who need it. (In business, managers will likely mirror this behavior.)
Japan was a pioneer of offline supplementary study at juku, or cram schools like Kumon. Much of this basic skills training can be moved online. I recently invested in a venture called Surala, which hosts an online Star Academy that’s doing just that.
Of course, we don’t expect education to become wholly automated. As with gig economy jobs, there’s a tradeoff to consider. There are areas like emotional intelligence, creative thinking, and leadership where the computer has no place.
We can also expect healthcare to be transformed beyond 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. With any luck, there will also be great expansion into bettering mental health (something the Japanese salaryman is infamously in need of).
Of course, change will take time in the healthcare field, due to safety regulations, etc.
New tech and fresh voices in business are making it possible to break down walls like never before. Startups are already driving positive change in some of Japan’s most change-averse sectors.
Take media. While media companies around the world have weathered years of upheaval with bankruptcies, spin-offs, and takeovers (like Jeff Bezos’s buyout of The Washington Post), there has been a strange, artificial calm here in Japan.
But make no mistake—it is artificial.
Japanese media companies tend to 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 surrendered 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 most conservative ones).
Newsflash! Even the media is changing.
Sayonara, Japanese Salaryman
Normalized gig economy jobs and a new generation of forward-thinking entrepreneurs aren’t just bringing new tech to market. They’re bringing new definitions of what work and career actually mean. It’s already happened in Silicon Valley, and now it’s happening here.
So what will Japan look like in fifty years’ time?
With the fall of the Japanese salaryman as the go-to career model, things will surely change. 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 will lead the way, making Japan’s future a lot more colorful and less conformist than its monochrome past.