EDITORIAL: Dialogue on burden sharing needed between young, old
Last year, young people played the leading role in various movements that changed the world.
The young generation was in the vanguard of both the "Arab Spring," a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations that toppled long-standing dictatorships in the Arab world, and the "Occupy" protests against income and wealth inequality that started on Wall Street and spread to many parts of the world.
Indeed, these are times of tribulation for young people across the globe.
The number of the world's jobless workers belonging to the 15-24 age group hit an all-time high in 2009, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
The unemployment ratio for young people has remained far higher than those for other age groups.
The ILO thinks high unemployment among the young is the main factor behind the worldwide protests.
In Japan, the latest job data puts the unemployment rate for the 15-24-year-old demographic at around 9 percent, nearly double the average for all other groups.
Since the figure is still lower than in many Western countries like Spain, where more than 40 percent of young workers are without jobs, Japanese youth may be less disgruntled than their counterparts in other industrial countries.
But young Japanese are probably no less worried about the future.
Young people are also becoming more vocal and assertive in expressing their feelings in Japan.
In last year's mayoral election in Osaka, for instance, more young voters went to the polls than in the previous election, according to an exit poll by The Asahi Shimbun.
As many as 70 percent of voters in their 20s and 30s cast their votes for Toru Hashimoto, the leader of Osaka Ishin no Kai (Osaka restoration group), a local reformist party, who was elected as the new mayor of the city.
Young Japanese and the nation's plight
Hiroshi Ichihashi, the 23-year-old leader of Gakusei Osaka Ishin no Kai, the student group supporting Hashimoto's party, has voiced anxiety about the future of the nation in his blog. "I'm terribly scared when I imagine what Japan will look like 10 years, 20 years from now."
The principal source of their anxiety is the deteriorating job picture.
Fierce global competition is putting relentless pressure on Japanese companies to cut costs for survival as well as in other industrial nations. Furthermore, there are some unique factors that are complicating the situation in Japan.
The tradition of lifetime employment is not yet dead in Japan, although it has become less prevalent. Many Japanese companies still hire mainly new graduates and keep them on their payrolls until retirement.
Under this system, companies tend to reduce new full-time hires during economic hard times to protect the livelihoods of their current employees.
Unless young people can find full-time jobs when they graduate when jobs are scarce, they are likely to have difficulty developing their skills and building careers.
One study found that young Japanese who enter the job market during a recession are more likely to remain low-income earners for a longer period than their counterparts in countries like the United States.
Compounding Japan's problems is the rapid aging of its population and its low birthrate.
There were once many Japanese workers to support each elderly dependent.
Now, there are about three or so workers for every pensioner. In the future, there will be only one.
That's why Japan needs a consumption tax hike, argues Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.
He is right. But his argument is based on a basic premise that must not be forgotten.
If young workers cannot pay taxes and premiums for social security programs, the entire system will collapse.
Low-income earners cannot contribute to the support of retirees.
Politicians need to persuade the public
As the nation is shifting from a growth-oriented society to a mature society, the most important thing is to energize young generations.
It is vital to make it easier to receive education, create more jobs and improve the environment for child rearing. These should be top policy priorities.
It is also necessary to narrow the gap in pay between full-time and part-time workers and figure out ways to share jobs and wages between young people and older workers who have finished raising their children.
But how about the reality in Japan?
The ratio of Japan's expenditures for children and young people to its overall public spending was the second lowest among 39 countries, mostly members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, according to data for 2007.
The government has promised to reform the social security system to expand benefits for children and younger generations.
But there has been little progress toward that goal because the government has been unable to persuade the public to accept cuts in other expenditures to finance the reform.
The government has long postponed reducing pension benefits in response to falling prices as required by the program for fear of antagonizing elderly voters.
It is the duty of politicians to convince the public that the proposed social security reform will be good for future generations and benefit all generations over the long term.
Dialogue between citizens of different generations needed
Politicians, however, not wanting to face angry voters in elections, are avoiding their duty.
That's why Japanese politics has been unable to deal effectively with many pressing challenges confronting the nation.
Democracy, by its nature, is not quite good at fresh burden sharing.
Our challenge is how to overcome this weakness and move politics forward.
Things are not so simple as to allow us to solve the problem by simply entrusting the mission to a capable leader.
Politicians should first mend their ways and improve their performance. But voters also need to change themselves.
One good starting point is serious policy dialogue among citizens with conflicting interests.
Are both elderly and young people content with the current state of the social security system, which is designed mainly for old people?
During the Osaka mayoral election, Ichihashi, the student activist, made speeches in the streets urging young people generally indifferent to politics to get involved in his movement as "participants, not as supporters."
A wrong choice now could cause the social security system to break down by the time today's young people have grown old.
A real fiscal collapse would deliver immeasurable damage to the people's lives and the nation's economy.
Young people won't be able to run away from the consequences of their choices.
How can we create a society where different generations are willing to support each other?
What is necessary to leave such a society to future generations?
These are questions that all Japanese voters, including young people, should ponder.
Then, there would be a powerful force to move politics.