Why do Japanese companies not want to hire older workers?

I don’t know if it still happens, but two years ago I was still seeing lots of job ads clearly saying “35 years old or younger”. The main reason is that the company will have to pay an increment for age and possibly having dependants, as described in the post before last. All this extra outlay would come without any guarantee of being a better employee than someone straight out of college, as job references don’t exist and people mainly leave good companies for bad reasons.

Japanese companies also seem to prefer employing “blank slate” graduates who they can then train into the company way and slot into the company wherever they like, graduate recruits not being given any hint of future job title. Actually, train is probably the wrong word as, just like Japanese society generally, new employees are supposed to pick up what to do by example and other forms of osmosis rather than actually being told anything. This is obviously even trickier for older people to manage. There is also the problem that seniority gets confusing when age doesn’t match with number of years in the company, as it would if everyone was recruited straight out of university. In another post I came up with the very hesitant theory that maybe Japanese men usually dye their grey hair as they’d be embarrassed to be thought of as old and still in a lowly position in the company. There was a funny sketch in the excellent show Salaryman Neo where a new employee kept on being mistaken for a manager in this way, and most Japanese men I know with natural grey hair are in more creative jobs.

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2 Comments

  1. August 30, 2010 at 6:22 pm

    My Japanese teacher said that in many companies, cross-training is still the norm: that is, before you settle into your job (possibly even as an executive), you’re supposed to spend some time doing lots of other positions, sometimes even including factory/line work. (A client who’s a manager/engineer said that’s still true at his company.) I suspect that part of the “blank slate” thing is that older employees (and their temporary co-workers) may not be comfortable doing these lower-level cross-training positions, and that the companies may think someone who’s already specialized won’t benefit/will clash/something.

    I really like the cross-training idea and think US companies would benefit from it; on the other hand, I think that if it became normal for older and/or experienced new hires to be sent into cross-training in Japanese companies, then it wouldn’t be any problem and both the new hires and the company would still benefit. But there’s a lot of resistance in both cases, so…

  2. Reginald said,

    August 30, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    Your ‘cross-training’ is known as ‘job rotation’ in Europe, and these are very desired jobs there. Many large corporations hire university graduates for such schemes, and after 1-2 yrs they occupy fast-track leader positions in specialised areas. So it’s not a Japan-only thing. However, you find Japan’s uniqueness in manufacturing sector. Unlike the Japanese, European job rotations usually don’t include time spent in factories or other production sites. European managers always wear a tie and suits, while Japanese counterparts often walk around in lab uniforms and factory jumpsuits! I think such would have impacts on employee morale.


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