At Risk Students: Warnings from Japan While Congress Fiddles

Summary: The lessons of “slacker” youth in Japan, and chronic economic stagnation there, warns us of the perils of too many underemployed, undereducated youth to longer term economic health, and the role of government in human capital investment.

Jack is a bright young man, by testament of others and by aspects of his school record. That he has been an indifferent student need not have been too limiting in better economic times, but in these waning days of the Great Recession, with employers wary of human investment and the employment opportunities of the recent past having dried up even for the liberal arts university graduate, a young man like Jack, lacking university diploma, has found himself stuck in a round of poorly paying, often part time jobs that prohibit major purchases or the planning of a life with his girlfriend.

In fact it is a work environment in which well paying, highly technical jobs go unfilled, if we are to believe our corporate employers, and Jack, still struggling along at community college in vaguely a business program, has misplayed his opportunity to work hard in school, earn good grades, be smart about his college major, and be ready to go to work as a programmer or scientist or some other technical type that the current economy rewards. A child of American privilege, even as a member of a middle class family, he shares the fate of others who also never learned to work for the baubles they have been given, assumed manna will continue to fall from heaven, and so are lost when they are finally required to stand and deliver by the economic realities around them.

Jack is puzzled how to go about finding a well-paying job in this new economic environment.

The plight of our increased number of unemployed and marginally employed young people is anguishing for them and their families and poses both short term and potentially long term harm to our economic outlook.

An eye cast overseas to the Japanese economy and the shaky employment position of an oversized portion of their young, and increasingly of middle aged workers should tighten our breath a bit.

Following the crash of an enormous real estate bubble in the early 90’s, the Japanese economy has teetered along well behind the pace of its “tiger” years when Toyota and Sony seemed well on the way to replacing American companies in the corporate vanguard. The malaise continues to this day. According to Ethan Devine of Indus Capital Partners writing in the May 2012 issue of the Atlantic (“The Slacker Trap”), Japan’s economy has stagnated to such an extent that its current size is smaller than that in 1992.

Much as we see in our current sluggish recovery, in the atmosphere of economic uncertainty Japanese companies have continued to play their financial cards close to their vest and have declined to expand in aggressive ways. Japanese companies once hired thousands of university graduates who they then trained in their corporate byways. Such confidence in the future has evaporated, replaced by the hiring of part time workers with the very specific skills needed.

The consequence for young workers in Japan is staggering. “In 1992, 80 per cent of young workers held regular jobs. By 2006, half were temps,”  according to Devine. By comparison, less startling, but worrisome as a trend, 30 percent of young workers in the US in 2012 were part time, up from 23 per cent near the beginning of the Great Recession.

While Devine emphasizes that there are significant differences between the struggles of the Japanese economy and our own, he goes on to speculate that the stagnation in Japan may be related to the plight of their young workers.

Modern economies thrive where investment is made in human capital. Where young are trained or educated into roles crucial to the functioning of a cutting edge economy, the country as a whole benefits from the growth achieved. On the other hand, as young workers become marginalized by even a temporary shrinkage of the economy, the fund of human capital can diminish to the point where the phenomenon begins to be a player in a larger, more chronic stagnation. It is here in this quandary we find our friends the Japanese, whose example if accurate ought to stimulate remedial action on this side of the Pacific.

The term “slacker” of the Devine article refers to young folks of the early 90’s who rejected societal expectations to work hard, enter the economic mainstream, and conform to patterns that included 15 hour corporate days. They essentially “dropped out,” not unlike their counter cultural counterparts in America of the sixties.

Unfortunately for these rebels, they were doing so at a time the Japanese economy began its slide into profound funk. While our own countercultural types for the most part found their way back into a healthy American job market, in Japan many of these folks never found their way into economic sufficiency. The early waves are now moving into middle age without restoration, while younger people in damaging numbers are submerged in their wake. The composite struggle of these groups contributes to the current Japanese stagnation, Devine argues.

The more contemporary economic comparison to the Japanese slacker is an all too common student characteristic on this side of the big pond, as exemplified by the aforementioned Jack. Bruce Ramsey, a Seattle Times editorial columnist, sounding a bit like a curmudgeon grinding an axe, grumps up a letter received from a “frustrated teacher” in his May 22 column, “Education reform is only part of the answer to student achievement.”

The frustrated teacher reports for one assignment “half the students did not have their papers. ‘I don’t like to write’ or ‘I forgot it at home’ were the excuses…Teachers deal with 5×30 individual kids every day, many of whom consider school a waste of time and ten per cent of them (are) absent.”

A subsequent conversation Ramsey has with a professor of literature at a state university produces similar grievance. “The professor’s complaint: students who won’t read books. Also administrators who won’t back up professors who flunk students who won’t read books.”

The bilious quality of the latter message aside, my experience with high school students was similar. In my own reasonably good suburban high school, perhaps 30 percent of students could be said to have worked hard, while most of the rest simply did enough to get by. Some coasted so consistently that their idea of hard work was delusional. Perhaps I am  curmudgeonly as well.

Of course, as educators our role is to work with who is in front of us; our portfolio is to motivate the unmotivated. Do we listen to the professor of literature and fail the many who earned just that? Will the parent community allow such shock therapy?

When I contemplate what voice might awaken slumbering resources in our young, I find myself imagining a larger view, down the road some years, where the yearnings of millions in the Chinas, the Brasils, and the Indias of the world take shape as vigorous competition for those kids now in our schools, a competition this generation will lose handily because they do not compete with enough hunger, and whose coming job market dungeon will serve as warning, then stimulus, to their own children yet unborn.

How we manage or fail to short circuit this brutal lesson of international competition may go a long way toward determining whether or not our economy will continue to be vital, or run the risk of wallowing in the manner of the Japanese.

Thomas Friedman reports on a structural issue on this subject that in some ways echoes the dislocation of the Japanese workers. According to Friedman in his recent column “More than ever, it’s what you can do, not what you know,” job hunters seem not to have adjusted to what has been a fairly rapid shift in the interface between employers and prospective employees. On one hand, as in the Japanese dilemma, employers no longer hire university graduates, or promising other young, with the intention to train them in the byways of the work available. To the contrary, they are looking for prospective employees who have the very skills the corporation needs to add value to its enterprise right now.

Too many of our young do not have these job ready skills because their schooling has not been focused in the proper areas and/or the student has been less than diligent at the task.

Moreover, Friedman reports, job seekers too often seem not to have adjusted to the new corporate hiring strategy, and so flail inefficiently while looking for work with inept strategies. The successful job seekers are those with the maturity level to essentially be entrepreneurs on their own case, and find creative ways to bridge the gap between their current mix of skills and that which employers expect.

Meanwhile, such an impasse promotes the growth of an underclass, not unlike Japan’s, that is chronically under-employed, and by sheer numbers serves as a brake on the economic engine.

A corollary theme in school reform is the need for cognitive and emotional bridges in our graduates that link them to real economic life — the vision to project themselves into independent financial maturity — together with the nimbleness to navigate the complex byways of an uptick employment market in ways now bewildering to too many of their slightly older cousins.

In my own area south of Seattle a consortium of “Road Map” school districts has won a Race to the Top federal grant designed in part to add counselors whose work would help bridge the gap to college and beyond for low income students. A program called Navigation 101, native to Washington State, gives step by step instruction along the same track. (See Lynn Varner writing in the Seattle Times, “Helping high school students navigate the next step.”)

Alas, all such efforts, to be properly implemented, will take more counselors and teachers — that is, a lower teacher/student ratio — and inevitably, better funding, the progressive lament.

A slowly improving economy makes such choices at least more feasible.

While federal and state investment in human capital might create more robust bridges from job seeker to training to employment, shore up better the dicey prospects of some of our young, and thereby undergird a more robust and sustained recovery, conservative ideologues believe a return to self-reliance and small government pivotally serve the salvation of the nation and so resist these expenditures.

So government fiddles while the dynamic for a sticky economic stagnation on the order of that in Japan slouches into the picture.

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