Foreign Policy: The Skinny Jeans Theory Of Decline

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young man

hide captionIn Japan a trend seems to be growing of men who have little interest in the career oriented goals of the previous generation.

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Joshua Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy and editor of the Passport blog.

Chico Harlan's long Washington Post trend piece on Japan's "herbivores" — young men who prefer shopping and hanging out with friends to working 14 hour days before getting blackout drunk — is the latest entry in the increasingly popular genre of Japanese decline-watch stories in the U.S. media:

"To hear the analysts who study them tell it, Japanese men ages 20 to 34 are staging the most curious of rebellions, rejecting the 70-hour workweeks and purchase-for-status ethos that typified the 1980s economic boom. As the latest class of college graduates struggles to find jobs, a growing number of experts are detecting a problem even broader than unemployment: They see a generation of men who don't know what they want.

Japan earned its fortune a generation ago through the power of office warriors, the so-called salarymen who devoted their careers to one company. They wore dark suits; they joined for rowdy after-hours booze fests with co-workers; they often saw little of their families. These are the fathers of Japan's young men.

But among business leaders and officials, there is a growing understanding that the earlier work-for-fulfillment pattern has broken down. The economy's roar turned into a yawn. Concern about Japan's future replaced giddy national pride. As a result, this generation has lost 'the willingness to sacrifice for the company,' said Jeff Kingston, author of the recently published book Contemporary Japan.

Kingston added: 'And now as Japan begins to unravel in a sense, young people realize that the previous paradigm doesn't work. But they aren't sure what comes next. They've seen what amounts to a betrayal in Japan.'"

As James Fallows, Gideon Rachman and others have pointed out, there are a number of holes in the Japan as society-in-decline narrative. First of all, Japan is still a very, very wealthy country. Fallows writes in response to a recent New York Times Japan eulogy:

"[Japan], until only months ago, was second only to the United States in total economic output, and whose level of production and wealth per person is still nearly ten times greater than China's, the country that has just overtaken it in gross-output terms."

As for the fact that the country is being overrun by lackadaisical young men in "tight-fitted pants," I'm not really sure I buy this as a response to the Japanese economy unraveling.  First of all, another recent New York Times trend piece informs me that rising economic power China also has kids with tight pants.

Secondly, the fact that these young Japanese men "now fantasize about balanced lives and time for their families and quaint hobbies" strikes me as an indicator that the country is doing relatively well. The article actually makes a nice companion to Robin Henig's recent Times magazine piece on American 20-somethings — another exploration of young people who, because they live in a highly-affluent society, have been able to adopt un- or semi-employment as a lifestyle choice.

Let's face it, most people on this planet — plus most people in 1970s or 1980s Japan — would probably look at the archetypal barista/conceptual artist in contemporary Osaka and think he had it pretty good. You could probably develop an economic indicator for the point at which a country becomes affluent enough to develop irritating hipster subcultures. The skinny-jeans coefficient perhaps?

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