Changing Career Goals for Female Students in Japan


To follow up on my previous article about shūkatsu, Japanese students’ hunt for post-graduation jobs, in which I discussed this annual ritual in the context of the changes in Japanese society, here I would like to offer an overview of the job hunt for women students.

The current generation of older people may still harbor an image of the students at women’s universities as taking jobs with top-tier companies after graduation and then becoming full-time housewives after they marry. This was the conventional path for them in much of the postwar era. My own student years were during the time of the bubble economy, shortly after the Equal Employment Opportunity Act came into effect in 1986. Later, when I headed the placement office at a women’s university for a period of three years, I was truly taken aback at the changes in the employment picture. The developments went beyond anything I had imagined.

Before I go any further, I should point out that my observations in this article concern women students at average private universities in the Tokyo area; they are not a picture of the situation for women’s job placement nationwide.(*1) Here let us consider the changes in Japan’s economy and society as seen in the differences between the women students of an earlier era, who largely followed the path of becoming full-time housewives, and their daughters, today’s generation of young women.

The Disappearing “OL”

In the past, students seeking for post-graduation jobs had a standard model to follow: Men were expected to become breadwinners and women to settle down as housewives, taking care of the home and raising children. Before the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was enforced in 1986, job opportunities for women graduating from universities, even the University of Tokyo, were largely limited to the category of “general office work” (ippanshoku).(*2) But now such jobs are hard to get, especially at major corporations. Many companies have cut back on their hiring of such clerical workers and have taken to using temporary staff in their place. The openings that still exist are for “super” ippanshoku with high-level capabilities, such as being bilingual or able to serve as corporate sales representatives.

My own university has a strong image as a place whose graduates go on to become OLs (short for “office ladies”), as female clerical workers have traditionally been called. But only slightly over 20% of our graduating students actually take clerical jobs in the ippanshoku category. And these are mostly with megabanks or other popular companies, where the competition for posts is fierce. More than half find jobs in the sōgoshoku category, the managerial track for both men and women. To judge from what I see at our school, companies in today’s competitive world take a hardheaded numbers-based approach to hiring regular employees, whether male or female. Employees who cannot produce profits do not get bonuses, and there is a tendency for companies to make do with temps. This situation underlies the decline in clerical hiring and the rise in managerial-track hiring.

From Career Planning to Life Planning

In this context, today’s female university students have major cares as they hunt for jobs. The options are too numerous. Should they seek ippanshoku work at a major corporation, or are they better off taking a sōgōshoku post at a smaller company or a start-up? Should they aim to be generalists or specialists? And if they are from the provinces, should they look for a job back in their hometown or try to find one at a big-city company? Meanwhile, of course, quite a few students seek to fulfill their childhood dreams of careers as cabin attendants, for example, or as television announcers. And women job seekers often are thinking not just about what company they wish to work for and what sort of work style they want to have but also about the sort of life they wish to lead (something I strongly hope they consider). The actual views they express have been changing: In the past few years the number of women saying they hope to spend their whole lives working has risen markedly.

Perhaps because our school is a women’s university, about half of our incoming students say they would like to follow the traditional path of taking a clerical job at a major corporation after graduation, becoming a full-time housewife after having children, and focusing on bringing them up; then, after their children reach a certain age, they hope to take part-time jobs. But by their junior and senior years they become much less likely to voice such sentiments. Instead we hear them say things like “I may not get married, and even if I do, I might get divorced. So I want to be able to support myself.” Another concern is that their husband could lose his job because of corporate downsizing or bankruptcy. It is not unusual for today’s students to have family members who have had such experiences. And since the financial crisis of 2008, media reports have called attention to the poverty of single mothers; students can imagine themselves in these women’s shoes.

Parents’ attitudes have also changed. Formerly it was not uncommon for them to say things like “Our daughter is laid back, and she shouldn’t have to struggle. If possible we hope she’ll work for a while as an OL at a good company and become a homemaker after she marries.” In other words, they were hoping for a “traditional” lifestyle for their offspring. But since the financial crisis, there has been a boom in seminars for parents of job-seeking students, and the participants are increasingly expressing the hope that their daughters will find work that they can continue throughout their lives without limiting their sights to top-tier corporations.

As I noted in my previous article, the stagnation of the Japanese economy and the rapid demographic shift due to the declining birthrate have promoted changes in work styles. The government has adopted a policy of encouraging women to work, companies are looking to women to help them cope with the shortage of labor, and at the household level, declining income levels are pushing women to take jobs. For women who expect to keep working for their whole lives, the preferable options are different than those for their mothers’ generation, when women commonly left their jobs after marriage to become full-time housewives. It has become important for them to consider their life plans as they look for jobs, taking note of whether potential employers will allow them to combine childbirth and child rearing with the pursuit of their careers.

Full-Time Housewives: A Mark of Affluence?

I often see articles claiming that young women are now increasingly inclined to become full-time housewives. Is this true? When I ask students whether this is their wish, few say yes; for the most part they say that being a full-time housewife sounds boring and that they would rather continue to do interesting work. Meanwhile the term kaji tetsudai (housework helper) has disappeared from current speech. (This was conventionally used to describe the status of young women who had graduated from school and were living with their parents until they got married.) Students who devote themselves more to having fun and holding down part-time jobs than to their studies seem all the more likely to become enthusiastic career women after they graduate.

When the mothers of today’s students were young, becoming a homemaker was a perfectly practical and achievable future target. Nowadays, however, men’s incomes are clearly on a downtrend, and it is common for married women to work. Some young women say that they would be delighted to become full-time housewives if their family finances permitted it. It seems that for today’s young people the idea of being a full-time housewife is strongly associated with affluence. It may be that this status has become a dream that can be realized only in high-income households, one that ordinary young women cannot hope to attain.

In order to encourage my students draw up long-range career plans, every year I ask them to describe their visions for themselves at target ages in their thirties and forties. In addition to sketching themselves in various types of jobs, many express the hope that they will have found a husband with a high income, will be fielding their homemaking and child-rearing responsibilities, and will be actively undertaking fulfilling work outside the home. And of course they want to be attractive as women at every age. In other words, they aim to be superwomen!

Can Women Combine Work and Family Duties?

Becoming a superwoman, however, is no simple matter. Students must consider various questions: Do the companies where they hope to work have support systems for women who give birth and raise children? Are there women who are successfully combining work and family duties? If and when they have children, can they expect help from their parents? If they are from the provinces, their parents may want them to move back, while they themselves may prefer the attractions of big-city life and work. But living in Tokyo is expensive. Many women students decide to seek management-track jobs because that is the only way they can earn enough to afford living alone in the capital (though there are also the lucky exceptions of young women whose parents help pay their rent even after they graduate). Under these circumstances, some students decide to look for jobs in their hometowns. But job openings in the provinces are few in number, and the pay tends to be poor. And worst of all, from the students’ perspective, is the persistence of conservative, male-dominated corporate culture.

Of course both companies and the national government should strive to improve the working environment for women. But meanwhile, in today’s rapidly changing world, women students need to pursue their job hunts more strategically than their male peers.

(Originally published in Japanese on May 10, 2016. Banner photo: Students at the University of Tokyo following their graduation ceremony in March 2016. © Jiji.)

Further reading
“Shūkatsu”: How Japanese Students Hunt for Jobs Japanese Women Face Tough Reality in Work and Marriage The Plight of Japan’s Single Mothers A Surprising Shift in Young People’s Attitudes: Why Do More Favor Full-Time Homemaking?
A Welcome Revision of the Worker Dispatch Act Japan’s Employment System in Transition Addressing the Problems with Japan’s Peculiar Employment System Japan’s Labor Shortages in Perspective
Regular Full-Time Positions Increasingly Elusive for Japanese Workers Shifting the Employment Debate: “Nonregular” Focus Distracts and Misleads The Diversity Deficit: How Japanese Corporate Recruitment Has Failed to Move with the Times Can Foreign Housekeepers Help Japanese Women Shine?

(*1) ^ The share of high school graduates going on to four-year universities as of 2013 in Japan was 54.0% for men and 45.6% for women (55.2% if junior colleges are included).

(*2) ^ The popular image of ippanshoku is that of so-called office ladies, or OLs, pouring tea and making copies for their male colleagues. In practice, however, it is not uncommon for women doing general office work to be expected to handle advanced responsibilities, while having fewer prospects for promotion and receiving lower pay than male employees.

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