JILPT Research Eye
Research on Prime-Age Workers in Non-Regular Employment

January 20, 2015
(Originally published on August 6th, 2014 in Japanese)

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Koji TAKAHASHI

Researcher, Department of Policy Management


The problem of non-regular employment is no longer a problem limited to married women working part-time ("housewife part-timers")[Note 1] or young workers in non-regular employment ("freeters")[Note 2].

JILPT is currently conducting “Research on Working Styles and Work consciousness of Prime-Age Workers in Non-Regular Employment” as part of the 3rd five-year Project Research (FY2012-2016). This has been planned based on the actual situation where, after more than two decades since the increase in young non-regular workers became problematic, we observe an increase in non-regular workers who can no longer be called “young.” The purpose of this research is to contribute to planning future labor policies, by identifying the issues faced by these workers and analyzing why they fell into that employment situation as well as conditions for career enhancement.

Workers in non-regular employment: neither "housewife part-timers" nor "freeters"

After the Japanese economy achieved high-level growth, the first non-regular workers to appear in large numbers were married women working part-time ("housewife part-timers"). Then, after the collapse of the bubble economy, there was an increase in young workers in non-regular employment ("freeters"), which developed into a social problem, and various policy measures have been taken to address the issues[Note 3].

Recently, there has also been an increase of non-regular workers, who are neither housewife part-timers, nor fall under the definition of freeters, but male and unmarried female in the 35-44 age group. Here, these workers will be called “prime-age workers in non-regular employment.”

Fig. 1 shows the numbers of these workers. From this, we see that the male-female total has doubled from 510,000 to 1.04 million in the last decade. Of course, part of the increase is due to the fact that the so-called second baby boomer generation has reached the 35-44 age group. But even the ratio of workers in non-regular employment in the same age group verifies the growth.

Fig. 1 Trends in numbers of prime-age (aged 35-44) workers in non-regular employment

Fig. 1

  • Source: Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, "Labour Force Survey (Detailed Tabulation)."
  • (1): Percentages show the ratio of workers in non-regular employment compared to "all employees excluding executives."
  • (2): Numbers excludes persons currently enrolled in education.

Involuntary non-regular employees, stagnant wages, hard living situations

So what are the situation of their work and lives? Figs. 2 to 4 show the results of factual analysis based on the "Questionnaire survey on vocational careers and working styles"[Note 4] (normal questionnaire) conducted by JILPT.

The first point to note is that there are many involuntary workers in non-regular employment. Fig. 2 reveals that, compared to young non-regular workers (aged 25-34), many prime-age non-regular workers (aged 35-44), both male and female, cited “Because there was no company where I could work as a regular employee,” as a reason why they chose their current employment type.

Fig. 2 Ratio of involuntary workers in non-regular employment (%)

Fig. 2

  • Source: The aggregated tables in JILPT Research Report No.164, Part II.
  • Note: Ratios of non-regular workers who chose their current employment type "Because there was no company where I could work as a regular employee."

In non-regular employment, wages scarcely rise with age. Fig. 3 shows wage levels (median values) of employed workers. As this reveals, in regular employment, monthly wages for prime-age males are 60,000 yen (25%) higher than those of young workers, and those for females are also 40,000 yen (20%) higher, while in non-regular employment, by contrast, hourly pay for prime-age males is only 100 yen (11.1%) higher and that for females is actually 30 yen (3.4%) lower.

Fig. 3 Wage levels of employed workers (median values)

Fig. 3

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  • Source: The aggregated tables in JILPT Research Report No.164, Part II.

Due partly to the sluggish rate of wage increase from young to prime age, prime-age workers in non-regular employment face hardship in life. Fig. 4 shows the distribution of equivalent household incomes for employed workers[Note 5], by employment status (regular or non-regular), by gender, and by age group. Here, a median value is calculated from the equivalent household incomes of all employed workers, and cases below half of the median are defined as “poverty.” The results show that in the case of regular employment, there is no difference in poverty levels between young and prime-age workers (either males or females). In the case of non-regular employment, on the other hand, the poverty level is higher in prime-age workers than in young workers, for both males and females.

Fig. 4 Distribution of equivalent household incomes of employed workers

Fig. 4

  • Source: JILPT Research Report No.164, Fig. 5-2-3 and Fig. 5-2-4.
  • Note: A median value is calculated from the equivalent household incomes of all employed workers, and cases below half the median are defined as "poverty."

Searching for causes, and conditions for career enhancement

So what sort of careers have prime-age non-regular workers followed until now? And what sort of careers will they pursue from now on? Figs. 5 and 6 show aggregated data of the “Questionnaire survey on vocational careers and working styles” (Life History Calendars or LHC) conducted by JILPT.

The first thing to note is that there are not necessarily many people who have been consistently in non-regular employment since their younger years. Fig. 5 shows the past careers of prime-age workers in non-regular employment. This reveals that nearly half of both males and females had been working in regular employment in their early to mid-20s.

So why did they end up in non-regular employment? Research Material Series No.126 (Japanese only), a record of interview surveys conducted with the workers concerned, suggested that this was often caused by termination of employment by their companies, as well as job quitting due to illness resulting from long working hours or the type of work, and unreasonable working conditions.

Fig. 5 Past careers of prime-age workers (aged 35-44) in non-regular employment

Fig. 5

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  • Source: Aggregated by the author from the "Questionnaire survey on vocational careers and working styles" (LHC).
  • Note: Data were aggregated for workers in non-regular employment aged 35-44.

But in spite of the hard living conditions of these prime-age non-regular workers, they are not without any prospect of career enhancement. Fig. 6 shows career paths between the ages of 20 and 40 of prime-age males who were in non-regular employment at ages 25, 30 or 35[Note 6]. This indicates that of those in non-regular employment at age 25, about half had converted to regular employment by their late 30s. By contrast, of those in non-regular employment at age 35, only a relatively small proportion subsequently converted to regular employment, though there were some who managed to do that.

Research Material Series No.126 also includes records of interviews with workers who converted to regular employment after reaching 35. One factor that emerges from this is the acquisition of professional qualifications. In JILPT Research Report No.164 (English summary available), similarly, it is suggested that, of prime-age workers in non-regular employment, those with professional qualifications and those engaged in job requiring specialized knowledge and skills have relatively good working conditions.

Fig. 6 Careers of prime-age males (aged 35-44) with experience of non-regular employment

Fig. 6

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  • Source: Aggregated by the author from the "Questionnaire survey on vocational careers and working styles" (LHC).
  • Note: Data were aggregated for males aged 35-44 who met the respective conditions. "Others" in the above graphs include self-employed, unknown etc.

Conclusion

As this research is still in progress, the analyses of factors and conditions for career enhancement in the second half are still within the realms of hypothesis. Moreover, not all working conditions are determined by employment status (regular or non-regular). Nevertheless, it is beyond doubt that many "prime-age workers in non-regular employment" who are neither "housewife part-timers" nor "freeters" face major difficulties both in their work and lives. We will continue to gather evidence with a view to proposing effective labor policies that can alleviate these difficulties, even slightly.

Note1. The term "housewife part-timers" is taken from Housewife Part-Timers - The Biggest Non-Regular Employment by Kazunari Honda, published by Shueisha Shinsho, 2010.

Note 2. For the time being, the definition adopted for “freeters” will be “Young people aged 15-34 (excluding students and housewives) who are in part-time work or arubaito (including temporary agency workers), or who are not in work but wish to find work.” See Cabinet Office, White Paper on the National Lifestyle 2003, published by Gyosei, 2003. (Japanese only)

Note 3. For example, see “To all young people who are continuing job-seeking activities, and to all employers” on the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare website. (Japanese only)

Note 4. This survey was conducted in July-August 2013 with a combination of Life History Calendars (LHC) and normal questionnaires for  a total of 10,000 males and females nationwide, 3,000 aged 25-34 (young) and 7,000 aged 35-44 (prime-age). There were 4,970 valid responses.

Note 5. Equivalent household income is household income divided by the square root of the number of household members.

Note 6. Here, people who had worked in non-regular employment for at least 6 months within the year when they were aged 25, 30 or 35, were regarded as “having been in non-regular employment” at ages 25, 30 or 35, respectively.