Millennials comprise a very large percent of today’s global workforce, across many countries and many different cultures. Regardless of an area’s traditional culture, its Millennials typically have very different tendencies and expectations than older generations. This post is part of a series intended to help global business leaders raise their awareness of continuous shifts in cross-cultural diversity by exploring how Millennials are reshaping cultural attitudes in selected countries.

Often times, cultural trends or shifts are influenced by the formative events that take place during our lives. As I was doing research for this post, I came across one somewhat confounding impetus for change: There is a labor shortage in Japan. Now, economic struggles do not necessarily constitute a life-altering crisis, but the way the Japanese government has responded to this challenge is shaping the lives and attitudes of Japanese people – many of whom are Millennials – in ways that could affect intercultural business communication.

But I am getting ahead of myself. In order to appreciate the significance of major shifts in Japan, we also need an awareness of the global context in which those shifts are occurring. So first, let’s take a look at the “gig economy.” Essentially, the gig economy refers to the global labor market (many of whom are Millennials) who work in “gigs,” or stints. This includes short-term contract work, freelance jobs, and part-time positions, all of which have become more common in our globalized marketplace.

The gig economy enables many young employees to work flexible hours, dabble in multiple fields, and use saved earnings to travel between jobs. Many Millennials in countries such as the US, where the gig economy is well-established, tend to focus more on personal growth and experiences rather than achievement or status.

Consider the Motivation Dimension of the CultureWizard Intercultural Model®, which ranges from Status-oriented societies that tend to prize accomplishment, to Balance-oriented societies that tend to prioritize family, relationships, and personal time. The US is generally a highly Status-oriented society, but the effect of the gig economy on Millennial perspectives means they are often more motivated by a Balance-oriented lifestyle than older generations. In fact, this shift toward stronger Balance in the Motivation Dimension is also present in many other countries with significant gig economies, such as Canada, the UK, and India.

But not Japan.

Japan is a more Status-oriented society whose culture has traditionally placed a strong emphasis on the longevity of a person’s career at one institution. The government had even set forth restrictions to discourage employees from taking second jobs. Early last year, those restrictions were loosened to help spur economic growth in the face of the country’s labor shortage, and many companies did, in fact, welcome the wave of part-time employees. So, in some ways, the effort to begin revitalizing the Japanese economy has been successful.

Unfortunately, this has also come at a cost. Stagnating wages have forced many part-time employees to work two, three, or even four jobs at a time. This means more people are working extremely long days without a stable position, vacation days, or even as much pay as they would have received for comparable work 20 years ago. So, unlike their Balance-oriented Millennial counterparts in other countries, Japanese Millennials have a stronger incentive to achieve more in order to compete in a struggling economy. A survey showed that 37% of Japanese Millennials expect to work for their entire lives, which makes their expectations of retirement some of the lowest globally. Suffice it to say, Japan’s tradition of strong Status Motivation may actually have become more intense in the Millennial generation.

The integration of gigs into the Japanese economy might also shift Millennial attitudes at work. For example, younger employees may not feel a strong sense of loyalty to one company, so they may not readily embrace teamwork over individual contributions. Lack of a stable position also means that many young Japanese workers might not feel a need to develop personal relationships with colleagues, so they may build trust based more on performance than personal connection.

Of course, in some ways Japanese Millennials may display a similar work ethic and value system as older Japanese employees. Or, if they have been able to find a permanent position or are able to remain self-sufficient in the gig economy, they might embrace the stronger Balance Motivation characteristic of Millennials in other countries with more established gig economies. That is, Japanese Millennials may be most productive when they have the flexibility to spend savings on experiences, such as travel or concerts rather than advanced education, or when they can devote more time to friends and relationships rather than professional achievements.

As if that weren’t enough to complicate intercultural communications, the Japanese government has also begun to loosen immigration restrictions to allow more foreign workers to enter the country. Japan has historically been pretty nationalistic, and its conservative immigration policies have reflected a desire to preserve its culture and customs. But in an attempt to address the problem of an aging population, the country recently made the controversial decision to begin allowing hundreds of thousands of foreign workers in on long-term visas.

It’s too soon to observe any marked or significant cultural change from this decision, but it is an important consideration in the context of other cultural shifts taking place in Japan. So remember that adaptability and cross-cultural awareness will likely become increasingly important in future interactions with Japanese colleagues. 

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