Thursday, August 10, 2006

So, are we really supposed to be ants?

This story from Japan disturbed me. The story claims that "emphasis on individual performance" and the adoption of "working practices more closely in line with US and British models"
has caused widespread mental illness and is responsible for a deepening demographic crisis, government officials say.

Statistics indicate that 60 per cent of workers suffer from “high anxiety” and that 65 per cent of companies report soaring levels of mental illness.

Not only that but the population is decreasing and
for the first time the Government has acknowledged that the falling birth rate is linked to job-related factors. Directors of the Japanese Mental Health Institute blame the same factors for rising levels of depression among workers and the country’s suicide rate, which remains the highest among rich nations.

Merit-based pay and promotion are of particular concern because they are at odds with the traditional system, built on seniority, that has reigned supreme in corporate Japan. In the harsh new atmosphere of cut-throat rivalry between workers, the Institute for Population and Social Security argues, young people do not feel financially stable enough to start families.

The trend is put down to Japanese companies’ attempts to globalise by adopting working practices more closely in line with US and British models. Larger numbers of temporary staff, a greater willingness to sack people and greater pay disparities are the downside.

A spokesman for the Mental Health Institute said that the emphasis on individual performance was driving Japanese workers — particularly those in their thirties — to mental turmoil. “People tend to be individualised under the new working patterns,” he said. “When people worked in teams they were happier.”

That led to my ruminating on whether we're supposed to be ants. Yes, yes...Japan's culture is different from our own; but, for a while at least, Japan looked to be out-Westering the Western Europeans and the Americans ... until they went crazy.

I'm sure that there are folks that will look at these reports from Japan and vigorously renew the claim that individual rights and individual freedoms are chimeras, things that are too shaky, too evanescent to use as a foundation for a social structure. People should give up the idea that the individual is important. They should accept that the state, the society, the culture gives real meaning to the lives of its citizens.

I believe otherwise, most fervently otherwise.

3 comments:

Jessica Menn said...

I think the story's author has interpreted the data wrong. To me, the problem doesn't seem to be caused by communalized people suddenly being forced to be valued as individuals, but rather individuals who had in the past been judged by a certain standard now being measured by a different standard. Traditionally, Japenese workers had been promoted and given pay raises based on seniority; they, as individuals were given value by their devotion to a company. That seems like an individual standard instead of a communal standard. Now, dedication does not matter as much and what is important is if an employee is able to turn out qualitatively better work than other employees. That also is an individual standard.

Not everybody thrives in a cut throat environment (just like not everyone thrives in a relaxed environment), and I can very well understand people suffering from high anxiety and mental illness--particularly when their culture has, for so long, judged them by a different standard. I suspect that, contrary to what the author of the article has said, many workers under this new system do not feel they are being judged as individuals--their dedication is being overlooked in favor of how much money they are noticeably able to make for the company.

Steve Erbach said...

Jessica,

I was with you up to this point:

"I suspect that, contrary to what the author of the article has said, many workers under this new system do not feel they are being judged as individuals--their dedication is being overlooked in favor of how much money they are noticeably able to make for the company."

I can't see how you wound up interpreting the situation this way; particularly in view of the quote at the end of the article:

'A spokesman for the Mental Health Institute said that the emphasis on individual performance was driving Japanese workers — particularly those in their thirties — to mental turmoil. “People tend to be individualised under the new working patterns,” he said. “When people worked in teams they were happier." '

As you said yourself, "the problem doesn't seem to be caused by communalized people suddenly being forced to be valued as individuals, but rather individuals who had in the past been judged by a certain standard now being measured by a different standard."

You are probably right, however, in that while these folks are being judged on their individual contributions rather than on their loyalty, they may certainly feel that they're not being judged as individuals in light of the new order of business.

So, what were we arguing about again?

Steve Erbach
The Town Crank

Jessica Menn said...

***So, what were we arguing about again?***
Nothing. I used the word "feel" for a reason ;) I only added that part to my comment because it struck me as ironic that the people about whom the author is writing are probably experiencing the exact opposite of the feelings he's attributing to them.