The dangers of sustained unemployment

When Japan’s real-estate bubble burst, young people had no point of reference other than boom times. So when the job market dried up, many of them welcomed the chance for self-exploration. In 1990, the Los Angeles Times reported on these young freeters, who rejected “conformist Japanese culture and its 15-hour workdays” in favor of “working odd jobs for spare cash” and “hanging out.” The freeters pioneered funemployment.

But while the term freeter stuck, the choice to be out of work was soon anything but free. The first freeters are now in their late 30s and early 40s. Almost one-third do not hold regular jobs, and some never have. One-fifth still live with their parents. This perpetual failure to launch has taken a psychological toll. Aging freeters file six of every 10 mental-health insurance claims. Japan’s suicide rate rose by 70 percent from 1991 to 2003, and the proportion of suicide victims in their 30s has grown each of the past 15 years.

What is most alarming is that things keep getting worse for subsequent generations. Today, more than 20 years after Japan’s bubble burst, youth unemployment is higher than ever. Only half of working 15-to-24-year-olds have regular jobs, and another 10 percent are unemployed. The rest are “nonregulars.” Somewhat akin to temp positions in the U.S., Japan’s nonregular jobs pay half as much as regular jobs, offer few benefits, and can be eliminated on a whim—which they often are. The portion of young Japanese working as nonregulars exploded in the mid-1990s and has marched upward ever since.

Ethan Devine in the Atlantic on lessons the U.S. should learn from Japan about surges in unemployment. They can self-perpetuate. Also instructive for teaching me the terms "freeter" and "funemployment."

The lesson I took away was about the importance of continuing to learn new skills after graduation. Of course, college is much about signaling, and not necessarily about your exact course of study. But it's not clear that the traditional degrees that colleges tend to guide students toward are necessarily the optimal ones for employment in this next phase of our economy.

It's a post for another day, but I see students coming out of undergrad and graduate school these days missing some very basic and important skills which would boost their employability significantly.

To twist a well-known aphorism, being employed won't necessarily make you happy, but being unemployed can make you very unhappy.