Showing a little flexibility?

In the short time since I began blogging, I seem to have focused entirely on Japan, and largely on issues related to labor markets. This was not my original intention, but for now, let me add one more piece on this theme.

There have been a number of articles in recent months along the lines that ‘Womenomics’ is failing in Japan and, specifically that targets set in this area by the Abe administration will not be met (http://www.ibtimes.com/why-japans-womenomics-isnt-working-2331598). Many of these pieces make excellent points, and commitments by the government need to  be monitored closely. At the same time, we should perhaps not be surprised that changes in this area may not come as quickly as many of us would have liked.

Still, data in the last several years do offer reason for at least cautious optimism. First, the rise in overall labor force participation in Japan has been driven for the last several years by women. At the same time, the well-known “M-shaped” profile of female labor force participation in Japan is becoming less pronounced, suggesting that the pattern of women leaving the labor force for child-rearing, never to return, is being challenged (see Figures below, courtesy of Chie Aoyagi).

And in the last several days, there are some tentative signs thatJapanese employers are increasingly open to the sorts of flexible work environments that can make labor force participation by both women and men easier, including by allowing families to care for children and the rapidly-increasing elderly population while maintaining careers. Toyota recently announced (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/06/09/business/corporate-business/toyota-expand-work-home-program-help-staff-balance-domestic-demands/#.V1vN8Ff-29Z) a plan to allow around 20 percent of its workforce almost unlimited work from home. Of course, Toyota is just one company, but its not just any company, so others may well follow. Similarly, the central government announced  (http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2016/06/05/national/japan-to-encourage-government-workers-to-go-home-early-in-summer/#.V1vPplf-29Z) that workers will be encouraged to work more flexibly during the summer and to leave the office by 5:00 pm. (Admittedly, the fact that Tokyo’s Kasumigaseki district will experience “lights out” only at 8:00 pm makes one a bit skeptical and I can’t shake images of my Ministry of Finance friends working late into the night by flashlight!)

Can it be that the tightening labor market of the last several years and the longer-term decline in the Japanese labor force are finally beginning to push the public and private sectors to make changes to ease “work-life balance” and raise worker participation and productivity? And what sorts of broader social changes will a shrinking and aging population bring about? As usual, more questions than answers…
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