Sunday, December 13, 2009

Beyond grass-eating men and meat-eating women

I've been doing some research on Japanese social trends, and came across a fascinating article that I thought was worth sharing. The piece, by the astute social commentator Maki Fukasawa (who coined the term "grass-eating men"), is in Japanese, so I will summarize it here.

Fukasawa's piece, part of a column she does for Nikkei BP's Associe, a smart Japanese website aimed at working women, is ostensibly about the gap in male and female views on marriage, but it covers a lot more territory that has relevance to anyone interested in the Japanese economy. (As an aside, why are so many women's sites in America so trivial and fluffy?)

It won't be surprising for anyone who has been to Japan and been served tea by a female secretary before meeting with a male executive that Japanese women earn, on average, just over half of what men make. What was new to me was that Japanese women's average income peaks in their early 30s at just under US$34,000, and falls for the rest of their lives. By their early 50s, women are earning just US$30,000. Japanese men, by contrast, see their income rise over the same period. Men's income peaks in their early 50s at more than twice what women the same age earn, at almost US$75,000. Unsurprisingly, women represent just 10 percent of Japanese managers, compared with more than 40 percent in the US, according to Fukasawa.

These data reflect the "M-pattern" of Japanese female workforce participation, which climbs in their 20s, falls in their 30s and picks up again in their 40s. Lest you think that this is changing, Fukasawa reminds us that the M-pattern has been in place, essentially unchanged, since the 1980s. While clearly women in many countries struggle to balance work and home life, Japanese women are handicapped in their advance in the workforce by local prejudices (many carried by women themselves) but also the ridiculous shortage of nursery school places. There are 20,000 children on waiting lists for day-care centers in Japan. Only 28.5 percent of women with children under three work; by the time these kids are 6, 48.2 percent of their mothers work.

And I'd be willing to bet that many of those women aren't working full time. Women, like young men, are much more likely to be on non-staff contracts. Women accounted for 30 percent of Japan's non-staff workforce in the 1980s. Today, they account for more than 50 percent. I suppose you could argue that this reflects a higher total workforce participation for women today.

Fukasawa argues that these data support why men and women in Japan are so far apart on marriage. Women, including the "meat-eating" hunter women Fukasawa talks about, are very keen to get married, but men are shying away from this rite of passage. (This might explain why 25 percent of first children in Japan are conceived out of wedlock, according to Japanese government data, and why wedding planners now cater to pregnant brides, something that would have been unheard of as a business model a decade ago.)

The problem isn't hidden, Fukasawa says. It's obvious. That's why women care so much more about marriage - it's their best shot at financial security. And it's why men, concerned about being laid off, are even more reluctant to get married, since that means supporting another person (and likely a child as well) economically for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

China will be having the red, thank you

As I write, my piece on New Zealand wine is running at the second most read on the New York Times' Global Business section. I'm sure this won't last, but I did want to add a few things for anyone interested in the China market, one of the future growth opportunities New Zealand is targeting for its wines.

I did some research on Hong Kong's wine market as part of this piece, and learned that a whopping 78 percent of wine imported into Hong Kong is red. Japanese wine drinkers, I was told recently by a well known wine writer, apparently also prefer red, in part because it's obvious to passerby what it is in their glass - the whole point of conspicuous consumption. I don't know if Japanese (or Chinese) wine drinkers are that facile, and I haven't done any specific research on wine in the mainland, but I'd be willing to bet there is a similar preference for red, and probably (at least once you get out of the weeds of mainland-produced wines) for famous French red in China.

All of this makes New Zealand's attempt to transition out of sauvignon blanc, which accounted for 81 percent of exports last year, that much more important. New Zealand's pinot noirs are not well known in Asia, though to me at least, many are excellent (she says as though she knows anything about wine!). There is a long marketing and brand-building road ahead, and maybe one conclusion is: as New Zealand's wine industry looks to the Chinese market, the more boutique, the more exclusive, the more expensive, the better.

For evidence that the New Zealand wine industry is hungry for better international exposure, see here.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The risks of remaking ourselves in China's image

In the wake of the financial crisis, there has been a lot of justified hand-wringing in America about our economic prospects. Some of this criticism has pointed to China, and particularly China's industrial policy, as an example we should follow. “In China, shovel-ready means shovel ready,” James Owens, Caterpillar’s chief executive, said in April, lauding the country’s quick mobilization of resources. Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek, declared China “the winner of the global economic crisis.” While it's clear that China's political system allows it to respond more quickly in a crisis, it isn't clear to me that China's industrial policy is the reason for its prolonged and rapid economic growth. Other factors - foreign investment, a cheap renminbi, zealous local governments where officials are promoted on the basis of how much economic growth they can chalk up - these seem more important in driving growth than the policy of propping up a few industries with state bank loans. There are plenty of lessons we can learn from China, as Bill Powell of Time argues articulately here, but they aren't in the realm of big, unwieldy policies to stimulate development (and sometimes overdevelopment) in certain sectors. China has changed the competitive landscape. Revaluing its renminbi, while long overdue and important for addressing some global imbalances, is not going to bring back any significant number of manufacturing jobs. America needs to look carefully at preserving and building on what has made our economy so competitive in the past, and how we can ensure that our future growth trajectory brings as many people as possible into the fold. For more of my thoughts on this, see my piece on Foreign Policy's website published this week here.