Is working freelance a vicious circle?BY PAUL FITZPATRICK
Forget the enduring stereotypical image of the grey suited company man with his Mitsubishi car, Mitsubishi wife and Mitsubishi job for life.
Freeting is a term used to describe a working practice whereby young people opt for freelance or casual employment in preference to a structured career is becoming more and more prevalent in Japan and also in other countries.
The term “freeter” has entered the vocabulary within the last decade.“Freeter”, derived from German, literally means “free-worker”. Rather than being shacked to an organisation, freeters prefer to “do their own thing”. It’s a trend that’s become more and more common in the post industrial economies of Japan and the West.
Freeters initially emerged during the boom and bust days of the 1980s. This was an era characterised, in many countries, by short periods of economic growth when jobs were plentiful.
Rather than opt for a career, some young people were drawn into freelance, casual work that gave them the opportunity to experiment with different things and also time to pursue other interests.
Another feature of this era was a proliferation of part-time work coupled also with a growth in the demand for new types of professional services. In many countries, there was a corresponding increase in the numbers of young people graduating from university or polytechnic.
Casual employment, which had hitherto been confined to manual and semi-skilled occupations, was rapidly becoming a feature of the professional sector. The type of work that freeters engage in varies. It can include anything from web design, part-time tutoring, part-time journalism, employment as film extras to working as motorcycle couriers.
Typically, freeters are frequently highly educated and often degree holders. Research suggests that generally they tend to be creative yet somewhat idealistic.
Many see freeting as a way of pursuing their ideals. This aspect is loosely based on the assumption that if you try out lots of different things, one day your big break will come!
The vast majority are single and have no responsibilities or other financial commitments. On average, freeters earn considerably lesser than those engaged in full-time work. Most have learnt to adapt to a modest lifestyle and have cultivated a sense of deferred gratification.
In Japan, for example, many live with their parents. Others live in cheap rented accommodation. Yamanda graduated from university in 1986 at the start of Japan’s bubble economy.
Today, he works the 8 pm–6 am shift in a Tokyo convenience store. His monthly income, including payments as a film extra is about US$1,000. He lives in a deteriorating apartment for which he pays US$300 a month to rent.
Commuter trains run on tracks at the rear of the building; in front is a busy street where the traffic never ceases. He sleeps during the day, but the constant noise and vibration makes this difficult. Sunshine never penetrates the apartment.
Among his few possessions are a TV set he scavenged, a VCR that he got from a friend and stacks of comic magazines and video tapes piled high against the wall. When he graduated from university, Yamanda wanted to be a cartoonist. Since then, he’s had a series of jobs as a motorcycle courier, and a waiter in a pachinko parlour. Sadly, the elusive blue bird of happiness never came to land.
Yet, by virtue of their lack of financial security, many are prone to falling victim to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Freeters can be employed very inexpensively, compared to regular employees.
With technology and markets changing so rapidly, freeters provide organisations with a pool of educated and skilled people. Yet, freeters often make very good employees. As well as being often highly educated, they are frequently highly motivated and necessity has encouraged them to cultivate the ability to be resourceful, independent and adaptable.
On the downside, however, they usually lack the opportunity to update their skills or to acquire additional training. Some freeters eventually opt for nine to five jobs.
For others, however, freeting proves to be a vicious circle. Having had being engaged in casual employment for so long, no organisation is willing to employ them.
Ryuji lives with his parents and works part-time at a nearby bookstall. He earns about US$650 a month. Five years ago, he decided to get married. He needed to find regular employment. After about 20 job interviews spanning six months, he finally found a position. Meanwhile, his prospective partner informed him that she had found someone else. His hoped dashed, he eventually reverted to part-time, casual employment.
According to a survey, the freeter population comprises approximately 40 per cent male and 60 per cent female. According to the survey, most freeters complained of “having to live on low incomes”.
Others expressed feelings of alienation and rejection by society. Some disclosed the frustration of being unable to formulate a “life design” or to marry and have children. Psychological instability was also more prevalent among freeters than among the population as a whole.
Once largely confined to people in their 20s, many of today’s freeters are approaching middle age. Also, they are beginning to form a significant proportion of the working population. In Japan, freeting is partly a response to the demise in job security and jobs for life that offered young people career structures.
Within the context of the new economy, freeters inhabit a shadowy twilight zone. At the same time, few freeters have made provision for their retirement or health care. The freeter population in Japan is estimated to have reached four million.
A new variation of the term freeter is “neet”—not in education, employment or training. “Neeters” are young people who live with their parents and rely upon them for support. They are estimated to make up about 16 per cent of the youth population.
According to a 2003 government survey, 70 per cent of freeters aged between 18 and 35 would prefer to have full-time jobs. Freeting, however, is increasingly establishing itself as an accepted employment practice. According to the Japan Institute for Labour Policy and Training, instances whereby organisations hire new graduates as a path to a career structure or “job for life” have declined by a third during the last decade.
According to Fumio Otake, associate professor at the Institute of Social and Economic Research at Osaka University, the perception that the Japanese have traditionally had of themselves as a socially homogenous society is being replaced by one of losers and winners.
With labour flexibility becoming more acceptable and prevalent everywhere combined with the structural weaknesses inherent within the Japanese economy, the numbers of freeters are unlikely to diminish. If anything, they are likely to increase. With ageing populations bludgeoning in most countries, it is a working trend that needs to be addressed.
Paul FitzPatrick is a Singaporean PR. He has published several books and articles on HR Management in Asia and is a journalist with News International. He is a corporate trainer and uses the pseudonym 'Ziggy Stardust'.