Freeter is a Japanese expression for people between the ages of 15 and 34 who lack full time employment or are unemployed, excluding housewives and students. The term originally included young people who deliberately chose not to become salary-men, even though jobs were available at the time. Freeters may also be described as underemployed or freelance workers. These people do not start a career after high school or university, but instead earn money from low skilled and low paid jobs. The low income makes it difficult for freeters to start a family, and the lack of qualifications makes it difficult to start a career at a later point in life. Freeters have sometimes been glamorized as people pursuing their dreams and trying to live life to the fullest.
The word freeter or freeta was first used around 1987 or 1988 and is thought to be an portmanteau of the English word free (or perhaps freelance) and the German word arbeiter (‘laborer’). Another possibility is a shortening of freeloader. Arubaito is a Japanese loanword from German. As German (along with English) was used (especially for science and medicine) in Japanese universities before World War II, Arubaito became common among students to describe part time work for university students.
About 10% of high school and university graduates could not find steady employment in the spring of 2000, and a full 50% of those who could find a job left within 3 years after employment. The employment situation is worst for the youngest freeters. From 2000–2009, the number of freeters increased rapidly. In 1982 there were an estimated 500,000 freeters in Japan, 800,000 in 1987, 1.01 million in 1992 and 1.5 million in 1997. The number for 2001 is 4.17 million freeters according to one estimate, and 2 million in 2002 according to another estimate. According to some estimates, there will be 10 million freeters in Japan by 2014.
Many Japanese people worry about the future impact of freeters on society. If they work at all, freeters often work at convenience stores, supermarkets, fast food outlets, restaurants, and other low paying, low skill jobs. According to a survey by the Japan Institute of Labor in 2000, the average freeter works 4.9 days per week and earns ¥139,000 per month (ca. $1,300 U.S.). Two thirds of freeters have never had a regular, full time job. The rise of internet business has allowed some freeters to work from home and be self-employed. Some experts predict that Japan’s aging population will create a labor shortage that will increase career options for freeters.
The Japan Institute of Labor classifies freeters into three groups: the ‘moratorium’ type that wants to wait before starting a career, the ‘dream pursuing’ type, and the ‘no alternative’ type. The moratorium type of freeter wants to enjoy life, and deliberately chooses not to join the rat race of the Japanese work environment. The dream pursuing type has specific dreams incompatible with a standard Japanese career. The no alternative type cannot find a good job after leaving school or university, and is forced to take low paying jobs. This usually has to do with their dropout status from previous educational institutes. Those who dropped out of high school have the worst prospects.
Many freeters live for free with their parents as ‘parasite singles’ (‘basement dweller’ or ‘sponge’ in US parlance). Parents in Japan usually do not force their offspring out of the house. Once the parents die, the children will have to pay for their housing themselves. Even if they inherit the house or apartment, they still have to bear the costs of ownership.
Japanese housing is compact, and is too small for two families. If freeters want to marry they have to find their own housing, usually at their own expense. Some freeters move into a friend’s apartment or house, and share rent and expenses. Other freeters who don’t have enough money, may buy a tent and sleeping bag, becoming campers. A few freeters buy building materials such as bricks and concrete to erect a small house on cheap land, especially in areas where the building codes are not strict or not well enforced. Some save up money to buy a cheap metal shed, normally used for storage, and a portable plastic outhouse. These former freeters choose a lower standard of living to gain independence from their parents. However, the areas with such lax building codes are usually too far from job sites.
Starting a career becomes more difficult the longer somebody is a freeter, as Japanese companies prefer to hire new workers fresh out of high school or university. While the employment situation is changing, large traditional companies still see a new employee as a lifetime investment. They much prefer to hire a young person who offers a longer period of service, and who will be easier to mold. Freeters also lack the benefits of union membership, which gives strong legal protection against firing.
Often the only option left for freeters is to continue working at low income part time jobs, making it difficult to establish their own household. Some join the many homeless in Japan. A female freeter has the possibility to catch a husband with a career and to become a housewife. Women over 30 often find it difficult to get a man to marry them. Male freeters are less desired as husbands because they have little money. Many male freeters hope to start their careers later in life, when they are ready to support a family.
Part time jobs usually do not include any health or retirement benefits. Freeters’ low income makes payment of medical expenses onerous. The biggest problem for freeters, however, is that the Japanese pension system is based on the number of years a person has paid into the system. The freeter usually has little or no pension insurance or savings, which may force him or her to work beyond the usual retirement age. Japan faces the problem of an aging population. The pension system will be under increasing strain as the ratio of pensioners to workers increases.
The advantage of being a freeter is that one has more freedom of choice, and more time for hobbies, volunteering, and community service. If they are living with their parents, they can spend their entire income on themselves. They might be able to realize their dreams more than a career employee with little time, at least while they are young.
While they are young, freeters commonly live with their parents and have disposable income that would otherwise go toward rent. Their spending helps the manufacturing sector of the Japanese economy. By living in the same house as their parents and often not owning a car, freeters have a much lower impact on the natural environment than ‘high consumption’ members of society.
Large numbers of workers trying to start careers in their thirties may have a significant impact on the current corporate culture of Japan. It may change hiring and employment practices, particularly since demographers predict a future labor shortage due to the nation’s aging population.
Many male freeters have difficulties marrying because of their low income. They may thus have children later in life, or not at all. This will further reduce the low birth rate in Japan and compound social and economic problems related to the aging population, such as underfunding of the Japanese pension system. Freeters pay little or no money into the pension system. The situation will become even worse in the future as more people become freeters, and the ratio of workers to pensioners decreases.
The Japanese government has established a number of offices called Young Support Plaza to help young people find jobs. These offices offer basic training for job hunting: teaching young people how to write a résumé, and how to comport themselves during interviews. The demand for their services has been fairly low so far.