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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Lesson 1: Why the salaryman MUST go extinct

Why I am so obsessed by the Salaryman and his world?  In many ways it’s because I believe the Salaryman stands for much about what I hate in our so called “highly developed and advanced economic society”.

Do what you are told.  Follow the rules.  Don’t stand out.  Be obedient.  Care deeply about social status.  Joining elite institutions makes you better than others.  Feel tremendous pressure to micromanage others’ image of you.  Perception is more important than reality.

Just so there is no misunderstanding;  I don’t hate the people who are salaryman (well, not most of them anyway).   In fact, one of the reasons why I hate the salaryman paradigm so much is because of what it does to good people and their lives.

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Photo credit: Coal Miki / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

So why is the destruction of the Japanese salaryman being fortold by prophetic bloggers like me?  And why is this such a predestined event?  Even if the cosmic importance of such an event may not be readily apparent to you, allow me to make the utmost effort to convince you that rest assured it is.

If you live in a country considered “an economically developed western country” like the United States, Canada, United Kingdom or Australia and are younger than 60 years old you probably do not believe you or anyone else will graduate high school or college,  join one company and work there continuously until you retire at age 60 with a defined benefit pension.  Maybe the baby boomers or earlier generations in your country have experienced such a social structure, but this is no longer expected.

However, one of the funny things about Japanese society is that the collapse of this “lifetime employment” structure is only beginning to occur very recently.  And what is scarier, many Japanese are refusing to believe this era is over.   Moreover, almost all family upbringing, public educational and corporate training have not changed and are still operating on the assumption that the salaryman lifestyle important will be around forever.

That is why this is such an important event; more and more people are about to experience a shocking betrayal of the social contract they have been raised with.  There will be incredible fallout, and I have a morbid fascination with what the outcome will be.