In today’s troubled economy, one type of employee that has borne the brunt of all the head-cutting at most major Japanese corporations over the last 3 months is those people over 50 years old. Here at, we are being inundated with resumes from highly skilled and highly experienced people who are on the wrong side of 50 and have already been fired or soon will be. Matsushita Electric of Osaka seemed to set the pattern several months back, when it announced that it would ask any employee over 58 (we presume that directors on the Board were exempted) to take an early retirement. Since then, scores of companies have made their own announcements of layoffs – numbering in the tens of thousands – and most of the affected seem to be older employees. What is going on here?

Although Japan has a custom of respecting one’s elders, in some ways this is one custom that is a two-edged sword. Firstly, the seniority system means that older employees are usually more expensive. This, despite the fact that younger employees often have more stamina, can use PCs, and may be quicker in creating new business and new solutions. No wonder the smart young IT and finance staff are starting to desert conservative companies with strong seniority systems and moving to younger, more flexible companies. They are fed up with watching “old farts” get paid for doing less.

Secondly, although no one likes to say it, most employers think that older folks tend to be set in their ways and are often difficult to train and deal with. Better, they think, to spend more on university recruiting, and get someone ready to learn the company ways.

Thirdly, there is the fact that a smart young Japanese employee not only wants to work around like-minded and similarly aged people, but also they feel uncomfortable if they are put in charge of a significantly older person. This is a classic case of where the respect for one’s elders works against the elder person- to the point where they are no longer viable as employees, even if they are experienced, skilled, and hard working.

My sympathies lie with the over 50’s, suddenly thrown out of work for the first time, and not really understanding that their safe and ordered world is falling apart. After getting over the shock of being fired – most older people have very little idea of how to make themselves more attractive and trusted by new employers, so that they will be brought back into the workforce quickly. But the way forward is not hard to imagine. One way to do it, is to forget what you used to be paid and simply approach a smaller company (always short of employees at the best of times) with an offer to take a big pay cut and to do even menial work. After getting in, the idea is to provide so much value to the employer that they will start to think of the person as a trusted contributor to the company’s well-being.

Whether firing everyone over 50 years old in a company is a good strategy or not is beyond the scope of this column, however, the fact is that right now the market is rich with experienced ex-employees. I am being continually amazed recently by the selection of CFO’s, CEO’s, CTO’s, and other senior people coming in to meet with our consultants. I often silently shake my head and ask if Japan isn’t destroying one of its most important resources, simply to chase the illusion of youth….

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