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The future of work and the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) are hot topics in the UK, but what is the view from Japan – the home of advanced robotics and jobs for life? Tony Greenham reports from Tokyo.

In collaboration with RSA Fellows based in Tokyo, I have been on a tour of meetings and speaking engagements in the Japanese capital – the world’s most populous metropolitan area and ranked 3rd in the Global Power City Index 2016 after London and New York.

From a panel event with the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan to a breakfast roundtable at the British Embassy, with meetings with business leaders and academics in between, the themes have been the future of work, including the recent Taylor Review, and RSA research on labour markets and automation.

There has been enormous interest in the RSA’s work on these themes. But what I have I learned during my stay?

1. Artificial intelligence calls for real philosophy

In various ways, the discussion has turned to broader philosophical questions, which have arisen very naturally here as core concerns of policy and commerce. One discussant raised whether AI and robots would contribute to our understanding of the mind-body problem, and another raised the unresolved question of what we even mean by intelligence.

Ethical questions are never far away, with recognition that if the essential raw material of AI is big data, it is vital to reach social, and international, consensus on issues of data ownership and privacy. Some concern was expressed about a global race to the bottom, with some Japanese companies already offshoring activities to the USA, where standards around data privacy are lower.

2. Good corporate governance and economic democracy are key to harmony in a changing workplace

The social responsibility of companies has been a recurrent theme. The RSA’s view that technology is a tool that can be deployed for social good or harm depending on the purpose and intent behind it seems aligned with the conversation here in Japan. 

Japanese companies have traditionally seen it as a duty to provide stable long-term employment even at the expense of lower short-term shareholder returns. Managing trade-offs between public interest and private profit seems more accepted, perhaps expected, in Japan. Might this be a source of national competitive advantage in managing significant technology driven shifts in the workplace?

Several discussants have suggested that transparency in adoption of AI, and the close involvement of workers in guiding implementation, as well as greater efforts to inform and educate citizens about new technologies, are important roles for companies to perform.

robot origami

3. Whether in Japan or the UK, millennials are millennials

Millennials, or generation Y, the cohort born in the 1980’s and 1990’s, are often said to have a different attitude to work from their predecessors. They hold purpose and meaning to be more important, and attach less weight to status and seniority. A more fluid and entrepreneurial work life, with more frequent changes in job, are not just accepted but considered more desirable than a life based in one career or company.

This contrast is stark in Japan.

With a system still based on seniority over merit, and a work culture geared towards the team rather than the individual, how will self-employment and entrepreneurialism fare?

Younger people, especially students, are embracing the gig economy and are more demanding of their employers when they do enter full-time permanent employment. But if ‘start-up’ entrepreneurial culture is taking root among the young, their parents seem to be unimpressed, generally exhorting them to get a ‘proper job’.

Life can indeed be hard for younger people without permanent jobs, with access to housing and the stability needed to start a family seeming distant. But again, with London’s chronic and acute affordability crisis keeping younger Londoners in insecure and expensive housing, these are familiar problems.

I found very little awareness here of more radical ideas about empowering workers and increasing economic security beyond the job contract, such as Universal Basic Income, although the idea was listened to with great interest.

Ultimately Japan’s daunting demographics – the workforce of 65 million is expected to drop to 42 million by 2050 – is already leading to a shortage of young recruits. So my money is on Japanese working culture evolving to give greater respect and status to diverse career paths, including self-employment and contract work, which are currently seen as second class despite accounting for 40% of the workforce.

4. The role of woman in the workplace is changing slowly – culture change is needed

Compared with the UK and many other countries, gender equality in the workplace in Japan is poor. Expanding equality and diversity faces many challenges that are not entirely unfamiliar in the UK. The Japanese work ethic, which leads to punishing overtime among the traditional Salarymen, stands in the way of family life it seems, unless there is a full-time carer in the family (almost universally a woman) to look after not just children, but increasingly ageing parents too. Childcare is expensive and scarce, and the career advancement dilemma still faced by young parents – but especially women – in the UK is much sharper in Japan.

There is some political commitment to changing this, as well as great work on diversity by some pioneering institutions, but ultimately what might drive change is that demographic shift. Even with the advent of robot helpers in many occupations, an increase in the participation of women in the workforce seems essential.  If family life is not better supported as part of this, might the already declining birth-rate become even more problematic?

5. Optimism prevails about the ability of AI to complement human abilities rather than destroy jobs

Ultimately, I have experienced a refreshing optimism about the potential of technology here in Tokyo. Much of the talk has been about how automation can complement human abilities, enhancing the experience of work and the scope for creativity.

The RSA’s core theme of a national commitment to high quality work in the UK finds complete agreement here. I have heard in one major corporation about the importance placed on the happiness of employees, and a general view has been expressed that fulfilling work is a cornerstone of a good life.

With one of the highest levels of life expectancy in the world, there is also recognition here that the ‘learn-work-retire’ formula of the post-war period simply has to change.

The 100 Year Life, co-authored by RSA Fellow Lynda Gratton with Andrew Scott, has really captured the imagination in Japan. The book argues that if increasing longevity is to be a blessing rather than a curse, we need to radically restructure our approach to lifelong learning and our work-life balance.

So despite its reputation for being slow to change, perhaps the extent of the demographic shift in Japan, and the wider gulf between the traditional workplace model and the requirements of the 100 year life, will mean that these challenges are addressed with greater determination and urgency here than in other countries.

Either way, we hope that the RSA, through the combination of globally relevant UK based research and local engagement by Japanese Fellows, will become a valued participant in public discourse on the future of work and artificial intelligence in Japan.

 I’d like to thank Tania Coke FRSA for leading co-ordination efforts in Japan, and for Lauren Orso in the RSA Global Team for valuable background research for the trip.

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