Indefinite Retention: the Case for Compulsory Lifetime Employment

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“Japan’s success—and there is no precedent for it in history—very largely rested on organized immobility—the immobility of ‘lifetime employment.'”—Peter Drucker, management theorist, author and visionary

The prospect of lifetime employment has sunk in the darkening G-20 socio-economic horizon like a Rising Sun that, having risen to its full and glorious zenith, must follow an inexorable trajectory into sunset and darkness. Yes, there still are hundreds of millions in the G-others who will—rather, must—toil for life (in both senses of this phrase) until they drop dead or collapse, utterly and permanently exhausted, in 3rd-world rice paddies, in grimy slave-wage sweat-shops and astride lumbering passenger-packed bicycle taxis.  But their lifetime employment is coerced by the lifelong imperative to feed and breed, by limited job opportunities and by limited education/training, rather than pursued as a coveted employment perk like that previously offered to Japanese shin nyu sha in (????)—new job recruits, among whom, according to one estimate, as many as 80% worked as lifetime employees at some point in post-war Japan’s history.

In Japan’s case, lifetime employment has been an arrangement generally seen to be a permanent symbiotic, quasi-feudal joining at the hip for both management and employees, despite whatever unpleasant pressure has been exerted on both sides to accept it.

Hence, historically, “lifetime employment” has existed in two, not always easily distinguishable, forms: voluntary and involuntary—with the latter, in the paradigm case, being imposed by brute economic Malthusian forces such as scarcity of food rather than by corporate and worker joint assent.

“Indefinite Retention” Paradigms

But what if lifetime employment could be made compulsory through legislation, as a second kind of involuntary lifelong work? Think of the positive implications of such “indefinite retention”: vastly reduced unemployment, no capricious quitting and job hopping, more streamlined resumes and background or security checks, reduced recruitment and training costs in finding replacements, stronger (or at least longer) worker-management bonds, cumulative ongoing honing of employee skills and greater productivity, better predictability in HR and other corporate planning, a safer workplace and better protection from job hazards—since the longer an employee is on the job, the better the understanding and avoidance of workplace physical dangers, e.g., getting hair caught in machinery—the list is virtually endless, and could be expanded, if the benefits of having something like a Department of Home Office Security to protect employees from current and future workplace accidents and incidents were not enough of a justification.

Such compulsion could be applied at quite distinct stages and in equally distinct forms. These are the three main ones:

  • Compulsory permanent assignment to a job without regard for whether or not there is any evidence that conclusively proves the designee’s suitability for the job.  This is analogous to one version of what is called “indefinite retention” of DNA—currently a hot-button issue in the UK and recently ruled to be unlawful by the UK Supreme Court. Characterized by its opponents as dubious and arbitrary indefinite retention or indefinite retention of a citizen’s DNA on mere suspicion that it will be needed in the future (especially for suspected or convicted felons), the policy of indefinite retention of DNA has sparked fierce debates within the UK.  It also corresponds to the concept of arbitrary indefinite detention or indefinite detention of citizens on the basis of mere suspicion or executive declaration, which, unlike Japan’s unique system of indefinite retention of workers, has had far too many historical precedents, mostly sad and scary.
  • Compulsory permanent assignment to a job, but only after the assigning government body allows the assigned worker the opportunity to prove his or her unsuitability for that job, or to prove suitability for an altogether different job. This corresponds to indefinite retention of DNA, but only after a fair and impartial hearing of the citizen’s appeal and protestations. In criminal or martial law, it is equivalent to indefinite detention (possibly for life) only after a trial with due process, including specific charges, presentation of all evidence and legal representation for the defendant. (Google “habeas corpus” for details.)
  • Voluntary acceptance of a job, but with compulsory lifetime employment, i.e., “indefinite retention”, once the assigned worker admits the job assignment is appropriate.  Most similar to the Japanese lifetime employment model, this policy, recast in terms of indefinite retention of DNA, would amount to an admission on the part of a citizen that the government has good reason to indefinitely retain his or her DNA, thereby authorizing said indefinite retention. Within an indefinite detention framework, this scenario matches that of an outright confession and sentencing to an indefinite (possibly for life) term.

The Need for Indefinite Retention Laws

Should the Japanese or anyone else ever enamored of “indefinite retention” of employees consider making it compulsory? Unlike the eternal certainties of the Sun’s diurnal rhythm of ascent and descent, the chances of any spontaneous, non-governmentally mandated Phoenix-like resurrection of voluntary lifetime employment in the lifetime of any living Japanese are slim to none, or so it seems.  As for those of us in the West, lifetime employment, it goes without saying, cannot stage a comeback as an institution that never was as broadly established as it has been in Japan (despite de facto instances and exceptions such as UAW members and GM employees in the 1950s, and ensconced civil servants everywhere and everywhen).

So, if indefinite retention is to be preserved or extended, it will probably have to be compulsory and require government intervention and the kind of expertise many governments already have in the realms of indefinite retention and detention, since current and prospective job market dynamics and constraints are unlikely in the extreme to recommend or allow it as a free-market phenomenon and system.

What about any risks and dangers of imposing such an indefinite retention employment regime, e.g., the utter loss of individual freedom? Judging from the history of comparable compulsory schemes, a best guess is that despite the costs of such negatives, and given the predictably touted workplace security and safety benefits, they won’t be noticed—or discussed—as much as they should be….

….especially once the system is in place.

Read more in Retention

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).