Over the past four years, we have written frequently about major shifts in the structure of employment in California: the breakdown in full time employment and rise of alternative forms of contingent, project-based and part time employment. Precarious Japan, a new book from Duke University Press, examines how a surprisingly similar shift is impacting the Japanese economy.

The book, by Duke University Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Ms. Anne Allison, focuses on “Precarity”. The term refers to precarious employment, and Professor Allison sets out the following narrative.

turningjapanese2Japan was the model economy from the 1960s through the late 1980s. It was admired not only for its high economic growth rate, but also for the stable employment it offered to workers.

This stable employment began to break down with Japan’s severe economic downturn of the early 1990s—a downturn that it has still not fully recovered from. Government and industry promoted a shift to more flexible employment—otherwise known as “non-regular employment”, including employment that is contract, dispatch, temporary or part-time. The shift meant going from the corporatist “Japan Inc” to “liquefied Japan”.

Professor Allison estimates that the precariat or irregular workers constitute one-third of all workers and on-half of all young workers between 16 and 24. Women constitute the majority of the precariat, though she notes that thecultural impacts on men are greater. She explains that “As jobs become liquefied, so does social life more generally. Irregular workers are only half as likely to get married as regular workers…Women will say they would never marry a furita (perpetual temporary worker) for the social marginality this would confer on them.”

When the term furita was introduced in 1989 by Recruit Company, a temporary work agency, it was meant as a positive term, empowering workers with greater flexibility and choice. Since the early 1990s, though, Professor Allison notes that “the term has taken on a different connotation”.

The breakdown in full time employment has been hastened in the United States by national policies, placing more and more costs on employers. However, this valuable book by Professor Allison reminds us that it is not a phenomenon limited to the United States. It is being driven by the increased international economic competition, and rise over the past two decades of national economies beyond the United States, Western Europe, and Japan.

(Alert reader Anna B. passes on this link to the Vapors 1980 hit song.)