Home Political science Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty
After Forty: “We Don't Need Men, but We Do Need Work”
By the time they reached forty, single women were under considerably less pressure to marry, and they were reaching the prime of their working lives. Single women in this age range had mixed views of their success at romance and work. Some still very much wanted to find a romantic partner while others were generally content without a partner. Regarding work, women were better able to judge their own abilities and had learned to appreciate their accomplishments, yet they understood that they were undervalued in the employment market and were concerned about their employment prospects. Single women of this age group also spoke of their plans for caring for their parents and their own elder care.
Noriko, an unemployed forty-six-year-old woman, explained that the transition from youth to middle age brought a decline in the pressure to marry. She said, “when i was twenty-nine, i really felt pressured about marriage. Every night i couldn't sleep from frustration. But after i passed thirty, those feelings went away. It seems that thirty was the big age. All my friends agree that reaching thirty was really awful. Reaching forty was no problem. Some even say that they were glad to reach forty. At that time when you reached thirty, you had trouble finding work. Many [job] advertisements said that they didn't hire women over thirty. It's different now. It may be that now thirty-five is the critical age.” For noriko, the pressure to marry on schedule was compounded by fears of age discrimination in the employment market. She recalled feeling pressure to marry even though she had decided as a young girl that she need not marry. She was open to marriage but only if the person was someone whom she could respect. Noriko enjoyed her single life, and she had many friends, male and female, who were single. In recent years, she had become interested in Formula One racing and enjoyed traveling to australia to attend the australian Grand Prix. At the time of the interview, noriko did not have a boyfriend, and she and her friends joked that they would enjoy a “Heian-style marriage,” in which a man would visit them twice a week but they would keep separate residences. While content with her personal life, noriko struggled in the employment market. She had come to tokyo from niigata Prefecture to attend university and had lived in tokyo since her graduation. She had worked for several different companies as a regular staff member but without developing a specialized skill. When changing companies, she was forced to accept salaries that were not commensurate with her work experience. In one case, the company management said it could only pay her the salary of an eighteen-year old if it hired her through normal company policies, although at that time noriko was already in her thirties and had been working for over a decade. To circumvent this regulation, the company hired her through a regional office that could offer better terms, although she was assigned to work in the company's tokyo headquarters. The employment market in the 2000s was poor, and regular staff positions for women over thirty were difficult to secure. Noriko's struggles in her career reflect the employment market of the 2000s, in which changing one's place of employment was becoming increasingly common, yet for many older workers, and women in particular, movement was likely to bring a decrease in salary and deterioration of employment conditions. In her last position, noriko had been transferred from an office job to a factory position in which she supervised the manufacturing of materials used in housing construction. She resigned from the company after a colleague lost part of a finger at the factory. At the time of the interview, she was receiving government unemployment insurance and was studying to obtain a license to sell life
Women in their forties could ignore pressures to marry, but they could not ignore the realities of the employment market. Sana, a forty-year-old Osaka native, expressed this bluntly as she said, “we don't need men, but we do need work.” Sana said that she would like to marry if she met the right person but that employment was more important than men. When i first met her in 2001, She was working as a regular staff computer technician for a pharmaceutical firm that had transferred her to tokyo from Osaka, where she had been living with her mother and sisters. When rumors circulated that the company would begin laying off workers, she quit, and when i met her in 2004, she had been unable to find another regular staff position. She was working as a temporary staff person at a job that paid significantly less and provided no guarantee of continuous employment and no benefit packages. She said, “it's not good to regret, but now i think that i should have studied harder. If i had an MBa, my life would be better. But what i can do now is to go to interpreter's school. I haven't studied very hard, but i'll study harder. I envy women my age who are managers. Before, we had lifetime employment, but now [one's livelihood] is based on ability. Women can be managers now. The system is now performance-oriented. When i was younger, i traveled abroad, went drinking with colleagues, and now i'm paying the price.” Sana's skills as a computer technician were not sufficiently specialized to bring her job security. As she spoke and wrote english well, she was thinking about further polishing her english to become a professional interpreter.
Noriko and sana suffered setbacks in the employment markets because they had not sufficiently developed marketable skills but also because of age and gender discrimination in Japanese companies. When they changed companies, they found that their career trajectory and value in the employment markets had declined. Both were addressing their employment problems by studying to obtain specialized skills, and they did so because they felt that it was a necessary measure to allow them to survive in the employment market. Women in their forties had entered the workforce at a time when jobs were abundant and women were not expected to develop specialized job skills. Many had started in entry-level clerical positions and had no intention of remaining in the workforce for several decades. As time passed and they remained single, these women improved their skills and made contributions to their workplaces. In spite of these skills and their experiences, however, women in their forties were concerned about how to remain competitive in the job market, and some were learning specialized skills to be able to contin-
Ue to support themselves if they lost their current jobs.
In contrast to the employment market, which demanded strategy and initiative, women discussed family and romantic life as being beyond their control. Effort and action did not necessarily lead to a successful romantic relationship, and one could not predict when one's parents would fall ill and require care. In this sense, some women were looking beyond the employment Market to a time when family duties would force them into domestic caregiving roles and end the relative freedom of single life.
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