In The Shift, I wrote of the ‘default future’ and the ‘crafted future’. The ‘crafted future’ emerges when we actively make choices about the future with some understanding of the consequences of these choices. The idea of the ‘crafted future’ was very much on my mind this week as I spoke to journalists, students and workers in Tokyo. I was in Japan to support The Shift, which since its launch in autumn 2012 has become one of the best selling business books in the country. It seems that the idea of a ‘crafted future’, of choices and of consequences, has resonated with young and old in a country that appears to be at a fork in the path. This piece is written for the many hundreds of people I spoke with this week, the hundreds of thousands of Japanese people who have read The Shift, and for anyone who is interested in the future of corporate Japan and Generation Y.
Be a Passive Child or a Volitional Adult?
Reflecting on my time in Tokyo, it seems to me that now is a time of profound choices for Japanese workers, and particularly the Generation Y of Japan. Let me describe these given the nature of current relationships between corporation and worker.
The traditional relationship between the corporation and its workers across the world has been ‘parent to child’. The corporate ‘parent’ provides for the worker ‘child’. It does this through the promise of lifetime employment, through clearly demarcated promotion based on seniority, and through well-defined hierarchies of decision making. In this ultra-secure context, the role of the worker ‘child’ is to behave in a passive, disciplined manner by working long hours, rarely questioning authority, and by fitting into the hierarchy.
In much of the world, this ‘parent to child’ relationship has been swept away by a combination of cost-cutting corporations and feistier and more outspoken employees. For a variety of reasons, the ‘parent to child’ relationship in many Japanese corporations has remained intact until recently. However, as Japanese corporations such as Sony and Panasonic battle the likes of Apple and Samsung with little success, this corporate culture of ‘parent to child’ is coming under increasing pressure and scrutiny, particularly from the youngest generation.
There is an alternative to the ‘parent to child’ relationship. This is the ‘adult to adult’ relationship. This removes the predictability and comfort of ‘parent to child’, but puts in its place the possibility of greater freedom, creativity and choice. The challenge of this relationship is how to become more volitional, more able to understand the choices available, and more capable of grasping the consequences. The challenge becomes one of making a transition from being a ‘passive child’ to a ‘volitional adult’.
Over the course of my week in Tokyo, I was asked many times about my opinion on how this transition can be achieved. Here are my top three tips for making the transition from ‘passive child’ to ‘volitional adult’:
- First, widen your gaze. The world is joining up at an extraordinary pace. These emerging networks are creating fast-flowing streams of knowledge, ideas and projects. From Chile to Russia, young people are connecting to each other through online platforms like InnoCentive, which act as platforms for creativity. Those outside of these global networks are in danger of becoming isolated, failing to benefit from this enormous pool of creative energy. There is a real risk of Japanese youngsters becoming isolated from these global streams of knowledge and ideas, as Japan’s ultra-homogenous society provides few glimpses of other ways of living. What’s more, the inability of many to read English marginalizes the possibilities for global connection. Being a ‘volitional adult’ is about knowing the extent of the choices available, and it is only through widening the gaze that these choices become clearer. Building the diverse networks of the ‘Big Ideas Crowd’ will be crucial.
- Next, speak out. A child may argue with a parent, but ultimately the nexus of power remains with the parent. A good ‘adult to adult’ relationship has a more balanced nexus of power. It is based on conversation, mutual understanding and joint action taking. The basis of this is being able to speak out and have your voice heard. If employees are to become more volitional, they have to have the courage to speak out about what they believe to be right. One area of ‘speaking out’ that seems to me to be crucial at this stage in the development of corporate Japan is the role of women at work. Few senior figures in corporate Japan are women, and in the recent World Economic Forum ‘Gender Gap’ report, the country ranked 101 out of the 135 countries measured. If half of the potential Japanese workforce is unable to have their voice heard in an ‘adult to adult’ way, then this severely reduces their capacity to be a ‘volitional adult’.
- Then take courageous action. Being a ‘volitional adult’ is about understanding the choices available (by widening your gaze), debating these choices and consequences (by speaking out), and then exercising choice (by taking courageous action). This stands in direct contrast to the ‘passive child’. What might these choices look like for young Japanese workers? As I mentioned in my last blog, there is a growing consensus that youth unemployment is becoming one of the scourges of modern society. Research clearly shows that large corporations are rarely the primary creator of new jobs. Instead, new jobs are created in start-ups and medium sized companies. It seems that there is a great opportunity for some of the youth in Japan to become entrepreneurs. Yet few have taken this path to date. Faced with the comfort of the traditional ‘parent to child’ corporate relationship, the outside world of the ‘adult to adult’ can seem cold and uninviting. Yet there are those who are taking the risk. At Hub Tokyo, I met young entrepreneurs working together and connecting with others across the world. Over the coming decades, Japanese Generation Y cohort will build deep competence in how to support an ageing population, how to live in a civilized way in a ‘re-balanced world’, and how to balance industrialization and the resource needs of the natural world. These are all skills and insights that Japan’s young entrepreneurs, as well as its traditional corporations, can take to the rest of the world.
Widening your gaze, being prepared to speak out, and taking courageous action are ways of being that will be increasingly crucial in the joined up, global world that Japanese Gen Ys are entering. Now is the time for Japan’s Generation Y to make the shift.