Lesson 2: Relevance of Salaryman extinction for all societies

The more I live in Japan the more I come to realize that many things that seem unique about Japan, aren’t really unique to Japan at all.   I’m from the United States, and as I continue to study this topic I can’t help but realize that many of the social phenomenon I see in Japan actually took place (and often still does but under slightly different names!) in the United States as well.

The below quote is from Daniel Pink’s book Free Agent Nation (wrote in 2001), and he is quoting from another book, The Organization Man, which was written by William Whyte in 1957!

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The Organization Man.  The title marched into our national vocabulary.  The label described what was then the quintessence of work in America: an individual, almost always male, who ignored or buried his own identity and goals in the service of a large organization, which rewarded his self-denial with a regular paycheck, the promise of job security, and a fixed place in the world.  “They are the dominant members of our society…”  Whyte wrote of the Organization Men, “and it is their values which will set the American temper.”

The Organization Men often preached rugged individualism.  But instead of living by it, they had lowered “their sights to achieve a good job with adequate pay and proper pension and a nice house in a pleasant community populated with people as nearly like themselves as possible,” Whyte wrote.  They abided by what he called a Social Ethic, a secular theology that placed the organization at the center of belief- an all knowing being that was master, servant and benefactor.  In the catechism of work, you were loyal to the organization so that the organization would be loyal to you.  Belongingness mattered more than idiosyncrasy, group harmony more than individual expression.   And you pledged fealty to a large institution , and accepted the demands of its theology, not merely because it was a shrewd way to achieve financial stability-but because it was a proper and honorable way to live.  “When a young man says that to make a living these days you must do what somebody else wants you to do,” Whyte wrote, “he states it not only as a fact of life that must be accepted but as an inherently good proposition.”

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What blew me away when I read this, was that this man from 1950s America was describing modern day Japan!   What’s more interesting is that even though most people in the modern day USA consider entrepreneurs “cool” or admirable, the vast majority still seek to become employed workers.  So I think Japanese people share a lot of core values towards work with the Americans on this issue.

The primary difference is that while Japanese freely admit that they prefer security over the sacrifice of freedom the Americans seem to double-talk as if they are individuals who follow their own path but in reality are quickly willing to sacrifice personal happiness in order to meet the expectations of others.

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