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Young and Careful: Japan’s Strangely Conservative Youth

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By Dominic Carter

When I was a kid I used to love watching the 80’s American TV show, “Family Ties”. If you’re of the same vintage as me you may well remember the character Alex P. Keaton, the uber-conservative son of the family. Alex famously said, “People who have money don’t need people,” and carried a briefcase, instead of a backpack to school. It was sitcom magic to watch a preppy, self-absorbed teenager who took himself too seriously obsess over dips in the stock market and dream of becoming a “titan of industry,” while his ex-hippie parents rolled their eyes. 

It is a wondrous thing to see how kids always find new ways to rebel against their parents!

Fast forward to 2018 in Japan and you could be forgiven for thinking Japan is turning out a 21st century generation of Alex Keatons. When sitting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe won the election for the Liberal Democratic Party (Japan’s conservative party), last October, he did so with over 40 percent of the youth vote. According to two polls conducted by The Mainichi before the October 2017 election, the LDP ranked higher with teenagers and voters in their 20s and 30s than voters 40 and over. In fact, nearly 50 percent of teens and voters in their 20s voted for Abe. 

While I don’t believe the type of young Japanese people I see in the course of work at Carter Group are the same brand of conservative as Alex Keaton, I don’t find these statistics too difficult to believe. Indeed, in work that we’ve done recently on attitudes toward Donald Trump, we have found significantly greater levels of support of his presidency among the Japanese youth compared to older members of society.

Qualitatively, our researchers are seeing time and again that it is the older generations in Japan that show more social dynamism than people currently in their teens and twenties. Overall, younger Japanese give us the impression of being sceptical, conservative and unwilling to challenge the status quo.

It follows then, that for organisations aiming to foster positive social change, or as marketers working to upend the paradigm in their category, at times and in the right context, it may be more productive to focus on retirees than with their grandchildren—the opposite of what we might expect in western countries.  

For Gen Z in Japan, it seems to be all about having jobs, money and security for the future. Right now things are looking good for them under the LDP. Why would they want to rock the boat?

Reuters reports that the jobless rate in Japan is at a 23-year low, with 97.6 percent of college graduates who applied for jobs in 2017 getting hired. “For young people, the most important thing is employment,” said a business development analyst for Showa Women’s University. They want to make enough money to achieve genuine financial security. 

And for good reason. With Japan’s rapidly aging population, decreasing birth rate and a vast number of Japan’s workforce retiring in the next several years, the younger generations are all too aware of the responsibilities they will have to shoulder both personally and as a nation. In a somewhat hard-hitting article in The Japan Times, the Dankai Generation (Japan’s Baby Boomers), are singled out:

“The dankai no sedai (Japan’s version of the Baby Boomers), barrelled through their youthful rebellious phase en masse… brought forth the bubble economy of the late 80s… It is this latter achievement that makes them the objects of resentment for younger Japanese since it is assumed they wrecked the economy for everyone unlucky enough to be born after them. And now, as they enter the last phase of their lives, the boomers are placing an even greater burden on their children, who will have to pay through the nose to babysit them.”

Whether or not Abe’s current fiscal and economic policies will continue to attract millennial support remains to be seen. One thing younger voters in Japan can be sure of? The future is going to cost them a lot of money. With soaring national debt, an expected 2 percent consumption tax hike by 2019, unreliable pensions and an expected 40 percent decrease in the working population by 2050, the burden on them will be high.

Knowing what odds are stacked against them, maybe it’s not so farfetched to imagine the Alex P. Keatons of the world taking over their high school hallways with copies of the Nikkei under their arm (or on their carefully chosen and not brand-new device), rather than their favourite manga or portable video game.

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