Lifetime Employment Isn’t Ending from the Cruelty of Corporations


A recent article in the Wall Street Journal by Megumi Fujikawa may cut across the way people generally think of labor economics:

The Japanese practice of lifetime employment at larger companies survived more than two decades of economic stagnation. Now the system is confronting one of its biggest trials: a tight job market.

More people are switching jobs, often with the lure of a higher salary or fewer hours.

In America, at least, when one hears lamentations about the loss of lifetime employment, the complaint is most often directed against the supposedly greedy executives who want to save a few bucks rather than taking care of long-suffering employees.  That narrative has always seemed to me to be dehumanizing of employees.

Maybe people don’t want to be stuck in one company for their entire lives.  Maybe people like the idea of independently building the trajectory of their lives, not being cared for from cradle to grave.

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As Japan may be showing, when a tight labor market puts power in the hands of workers, they use that power to seek opportunity rather than indulge notions of loyalty.  In a changing economy, old notions that took for granted that the corporation had all the leverage and therefore needed to be forced by law and custom to be like guardians of its employees must be reevaluated.

Apart from some guard rails to keep self-interest within bounds, just free people up, and they’ll come to the arrangement that best suits the needs of all involved at the moment that they make the arrangements.  And then they’ll adjust when things change.  That this is a preferable state of affairs is illustrated by the fact that “progress” has a much more positive connotation than “reactionary.”

  • Rhett Hardwick

    Most of the talk I have ever heard from oldsters about “lifetime employment” centered around pensions and pension systems. In most places, you had to have “20 years in” before the pension began to be worth anything. Leave that job, and you needed 20 years in another company. From real oldsters, now long deceased, I remember a theory that “big companies took care of you”. The meaning of that phrase was never quite clear to me. I think it meant that they didn’t “downsize”, or go out of business.