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At the age of 15, Akino Imanaka already boasts a fabulous resume. She graduated — as all her teachers expected — at the top of her class, was the natural choice as student president and was picked to represent Oteshima Junior High at countless prestige events.

It helped, certainly, that she was her school’s only pupil.

Imanaka’s sign-of-the-times solo graduation in a child-starved corner of Kagawa prefecture fits elegantly into the received despair-scape of Japan’s future.

Life as the country knows it, lament various recent accounts, is in irrevocable peril. The dividend, though, is less often discussed: in the middle of the great coming upheaval, attitudes to risk-taking, unrewarded loyalty and enduring the unendurable may prove vulnerable as well. Just as many might daydream of a level of financial comfort that grants the individual total freedom to bargain, berate or just walk away from an employer, Japan is about to find out whether its young are now sitting on the demographic equivalent of “forget-you money”. 

The country’s demographic news is decidedly grim, and the long-term implications sound as ominous as they always have been. The young and the taxpaying will be heavily outnumbered by the old and tax-dependent, and monstrously indebted Japan cannot borrow from generations unborn without some reckoning.

The shorter-term discomforts are also starting to feel very real. Overtime caps and chronic shortages of lorry drivers, forecasts a Nomura Research Institute survey, will leave more than a third of domestic cargoes undeliverable by 2030. Population shrinkage and ageing, said a reverberatory report by Recruit Works Institute, will create an 11mn-worker shortfall by 2040. Last week ended with the government unveiling its latest plans to reverse long-term birth-rate decline after a warning by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida that the consequence of inaction was nothing short of societal collapse.

Tough stuff for CEOs, for sure. But conceivably, for Imanaka and her cohort of 15-year-old Japanese, quite liberating. She in particular has experienced — under admittedly extreme circumstances — the extraordinary empowerment of scarcity. Others can expect smaller-scale versions of that force to work in their favour in the future.

Even if the Recruit Works projection is a little off and even if the economy itself is forced into big structural change, by the time the Imanaka generation starts job hunting in about six years time, the labour market, which today offers 134 jobs for every 100 available workers, will have millions of positions to go around.

In theory, this cohort can foresee a Japan that will structurally need them a great deal more than it did other recent generations. It may, as a consequence, be far more accommodating to their ambitions, more responsive to their complaints and, perhaps most critically if they choose a life of entrepreneurialism, forgiving of their first, second and even third failures.

To an extent, say recruiters and hiring managers, this shift has already begun. Even large, household-name Japanese companies report a gap between their ideal intake and what they actually get these days. As that gap has widened, the HR job has changed: once a fairly one-way process of selection, it has become one of suasion. Many say they now face a question from applicants that their former abundance once made impertinent: “What can you do for me?”

Companies will also see their magnetism fading beyond the point of recruitment, as staff realise that scarcity grants them the ability to walk away from anything they do not like — bullying, excessive overtime, sexism — and into something they might.

But the greater empowerment may take the form of encouraging the Imanaka generation to experiment with the economy in ways that they — or more often their parents — would previously have viewed as too risky. Japan’s start-up ecosystem, say those directly involved in it, is not only structurally short of risk capital, but of people who feel comfortable taking the risk. The calculus changes completely if the risk can be taken knowing that a staff-deprived corporate sector stands ready (if not happily) to act as safety net for those who took a chance that did not work out.

There are many factors that could prevent this playing out anywhere near as neatly as described. But, for a period at least, the perception of inflection may be hugely empowering on its own. Imanaka told local media that, as a career, she was interested in education or welfare. Japan’s graduate-ravenous economy may have grander ambitions for her; demographics mean she can do exactly as she pleases.

leo.lewis@ft.com

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