The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Shop, save and savour life the freeters’ way

Tokyo, June 3 (Reuters): Shorter hours, minimal stress, and enough money to shop, play and even save.

Sounds good' Mika Onodera, 28, who works at a bakery in downtown Tokyo — her fifth job in as many years — thinks so.

So do a growing number of young Japanese who are opting to become“freeters” — workers who shun traditional life-time employment, often work part-time and happily flit from job to job.

“Living as a freeter, I get more freedom and I like that,” said Onodera.

She shares an apartment with her sister to help save on costs and have more cash at her disposal.

Others go even further, living at home with their parents to save on rent.

“Although I cut back on my spending, I have enough money to go out with friends and live comfortably,” said Onodera, who makes about 160,000 yen ($1,354) per month for her 40-hour work week and even manages to squeeze out some extra cash to save.

But while individuals find the lifestyle appealing, government officials and analysts fear the trend spells trouble ahead for an economy already stuck in the doldrums for more than a decade.

The number of freeters aged 15 to 34 nearly doubled in 2001 to 4.17 million from 1.83 million in 1990, meaning about one in nine in that age group are choosing the free-and-easy lifestyle, a recently released government white paper showed.

In the 25-34 age group alone, the number of freeters nearly tripled in the past decade.

The trend not only means falling tax revenues for a government already staggering under a massive public debt, but could also weigh on future economic productivity, since most part-time workers do not receive specialised training.

“If the number of freeters in their 30’s rises, this would be a very serious problem,” said Hiroaki Mimizuka, a professor of education sociology at Tokyo’s Ochanomizu University.

Freeters, from the English word “free” and the German-origin word “arubaito” meaning casual work, slip into the lifestyle for different reasons, but for many it’s a matter of choice.

About half chose to hop between part-time jobs because they couldn’t decide what they wanted to do or because they simply didn’t want to work full-time, one government survey showed.

“The biggest reason why many can’t decide what they want to do is they lack greed — in a good sense — or the enthusiasm to do something with their lives,” said Kazuhide Kato, head of job recruitment at Nihon University.

“Living in Japan isn’t difficult. Anybody can eat and sleep under a roof, even if you don’t have a full-time job.”

Others have trouble finding full-time work in an environment where companies, keen to cut costs, are reluctant to put new high school and college graduates on their full-time payrolls and are instead increasing their intake of cheaper part-timers.

“Every day is tiring. I just want it to end soon,” said Noriko Yoshida, a 22-year-old senior at Japan Women’s University, after spending a day at recruiting seminars in downtown Tokyo.

Yoshida, who is hoping to work in the publishing industry, is one of the nearly half-million college students vying for a post-graduate position starting next April.

With the unemployment rate at a near record high 5.4 per cent as of April, competition is tough.

The jobs-to-applicants ratio for those graduating from college next year is expected to be 1.35 — meaning there are only 1.35 jobs per graduate, according to job placement agency Recruit.

“At first, it’s kind of fun (looking for jobs),” said Yoshifumi Umeyama, a senior at Dokkyo University in Tokyo.

“But when you start getting rejected from companies of your first choice, the enthusiasm also starts fading,” said the economics major.

Umeyama has been looking for work in the manufacturing industry and still hasn’t found a job to his liking after nearly three months of hunting.

The growing number of freeters is also bad news for Japan’s sagging birthrate, since many can support themselves but can’t afford to feed a family, said Ochanomizu University’s Mimizuka.

Japan’s fertility rate is at a rock-bottom 1.35 per woman and the country’s population of 127 million is due to start shrinking from 2007.

That means the nation faces the threat of a labour shortage as well as possible cuts to state pension fund payments.

The economy will also suffer as the pool of highly skilled, well-motivated workers who helped drive Japan’s post-World War II economic miracle dries up.

Part-timers, meanwhile, may be happy with their lifestyle now but they could face greater difficulties later if it becomes necessary for them to find full-time jobs.

“Society is still not used to dealing with freeters so it will be difficult for freeters in their 30’s to return as full-time company employees and become members of the core work force,” Mimizuka said.

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