Are We Becoming Roleless?

Episode Transcription 

Nick: Hello, it's Nick Kemp here on episode two of the Rolefulness Podcast with Professor Daiki Kato. And in this episode, we will explore rolelessness.

In our previous episode, we defined and discussed rolefulness. If you haven't listened to that episode, we recommend that you do so before you listen to this one. Daiki, thanks for joining me today.

Daiki: Thank you, Nick, I'm happy to talk with you again.

Nick: Me too. So let's move on with this journey of rolefulness. But today, we're looking at rolelessness, and I think you and I both have concerns that rolelessness is increasing in society.

What is rolelessness

Daiki: So let's start to talk about rolelessness today. So first, can you explain what rolelessness is about?

Nick: Sure. So as you know, I've been reading a few books on role theory and some papers and I came across a few definitions or interesting paragraphs that I'd like to quote. It is a condition often associated with adolescents and retirees which I touched on in the previous episode. 

So I have a few quotes. The first one is from someone called Elana Nightingale, and she noted in her paper called 'Adolescent Rolelessness in Modern Society' and this is in 1998:

"Adolescents have no prepared place in society that is appreciated or approved; nonetheless they must tackle two major tasks, usually on their own: identity formation and development of self-worth, and self-efficacy. The current social environment of adolescents makes both tasks very difficult. 

For these reasons, adolescents today are said to be suffering from 'rolelessness.' Of course, they are not truly roleless because society in general, parents and schools do set certain roles for them, though these roles are not as meaningful and productive as they could be. Adolescents also could have other roles, most often determined by their peers, which are perceived by adults as undesirable. 

Thus, when we speak of 'rolelessness' what we decry is that adolescents do not have contributing active productive roles that are consistent with and valued by adult society. Since current adolescent roles arose by default, much can be done to restructure these roles in positive ways." 

All right, that was quite a long quote. Let's move on to the elderly. And I found another quote in a paper called 'The task of time in retirement' by David Ekerdt and Catheryn Ross, and they noted that:

"Modern social trends, in a 'series of blows', had reduced the status of older people in the economy, the family and the community, and regulated them to retirement. They found themselves cursed instead of blessed by leisure time in abundance and little or nothing to do with. Retirees are 'imprisoned in a roleless role' with no vital function to perform." 

Wow. So is this true for Japan, Daiki? Do you think adolescents and retirees struggle with a lack of meaningful roles?

Rolelessness in adolescents and retirees

Experiencing rolelessness

Daiki: Thank you for introducing rolelessness. So let's think about your question. Today, rolelessness is a condition not limited to the adolescent and elderly. We all are likely to have or will experience a sense of rolelessness at one point in our life.

For example, in our jobs, sometimes in our relationships with others. Japan used to have lifetime employment where one devoted their entire career to a company. This is no longer guaranteed. 

Perhaps the situation is not only in Japan, so it is the same as in many other countries, I think. The change of the society affected the sense of role of adolescents. They feel anxiety for their future, and they have to find their role without school or company. In fact, now I'm working at a university and every day I'm talking with my students. 

The university students are very busy with job searching. But the way of hiring is changing. So, as I said, a lifetime career is not guaranteed. I think many students fear and are anxious about that. So it strongly affects the sense of role. I think many adolescents and young Japanese feel rolelessness.

Nick: I remember going to Japan in the mid 90s. And I remember several friends would tell me how the pathway for Japanese from being a student to university student to employment was very clear. You had to do well at school; if you did well at school, you'd get into a university; if you got into that university, then actually, the pressure was getting into university. 

And then yeah, if you completed your degree, you could then seek or apply for employment and have a good chance of getting into a company. And they often spoke about lifetime employment. Now, that's over 30, or it's almost 30 years ago, so it has changed a lot. So this idea of lifetime employment, is that a form of role loss do you think for Japanese?

Roles change over time

Roles change over time

Daiki: Yes, society has been changing and our role is also changing. Some roles were lost through the process. The role consciousness is changing because of several reasons in our society and life.

Nick: I guess our roles do evolve or change, or our involvement in a certain role changes over time. And I know I touched on this in the previous episode, so my role is changing with my son. It's not a state of rolelessness at all, but he probably doesn't need me now. Or he probably doesn't need me as much as when he was younger. 

I like to think he does need me and I still have a strong sense of rolefulness, but perhaps not as strong as it was when he was younger. And once he leaves home, and he's independent, who knows he might even live in a different country, I guess my sense of rolefulness will change. And it might not be as strong as it is now or as it once was, but it will still be there. And I will always feel a sense of rolefulness as a father. 

But maybe that's one of the challenges of life, is that we have multiple roles. And I guess during our life, there are these periods of intensity in each of these roles and then I guess they drop. So it's an interesting concept that we have all these roles, and that they evolve and change over time. But I guess this is typical as children grow and become independent, our role changes.

Daiki: Yes, we feel happy to see children's growth, but at the same time, we feel loneliness. However, our role in family or society is changing through our life and adapting. It is important, I think, to adapt to the changes. So we talked about the role of father in the last podcast. 

So your son already grew up, and my sons are still very young, but I feel that my role as a father is changing. For example, when my children were still babies, I had a role as the baby's father. And as my children go to school, my role as a father is changing. So after that, soon, they will be in their adolescence. So perhaps they won't need a father like now, maybe I'll feel roleless. 

But it is a very natural thing. So I think it happens to everyone. So it is a very natural thing. And so accepting the situation, and adapting to the situation is very important and finding a new role and focusing on the role and being satisfied with it is very important to the rolefulness. I think it is a very important point.

Nick: It's interesting being a parent, and you see your children grow, and when they're young and cute, and playful and happy, you definitely experience and share that happiness. And then I guess, once they become adolescents, they struggle to some degree with life and you can only help them so much.

And so your role has changed, too, to help them. So in some ways, you lose something in that role when they're younger. But you also gain, almost like a new role, which you can embrace. But you lose less time with them, and they're becoming more independent.

So it's a good point that we have to adapt to our role or the demands of our role. And that's something we can always be very proactive, and we can think about. 

So maybe that's a problem, maybe we don't think enough about, okay, my children are getting older, how can I best serve them? How can I best help them? Because that's what you do as a parent, or in our case, as a father. So yeah, it's one of my favourite roles, and I think it is for you, to be a father. 

So I'll always be a father, I think. Another concern we have, and maybe our listeners, too, is this idea of the impact of technology or technological advancement and social media on rolefulness. And we will also touch on an extreme form of social withdrawal later in this episode. But yeah, what are your initial thoughts on technology and social media?

Impact of technology on rolefulness

Daiki: The relationship between technological development and social withdrawal is a very important topic. And yes, the new technology is very convenient for us, but it also has a negative effect on our social relationships.

The problem of social withdrawal is one of the most important social problems. In Japan, we call it hikikomori. Have you ever heard about the word?

Nick: Yes, I wrote about it in my other book.

Daiki: Hikikomori is a recently very familiar word and not only in Japan. So it's a common problem in many countries.

Nick: Yeah, it's now a global problem, and it seems to be growing. But let's start with technology. Technological advancement brings a lot of benefits to people, society in the world at large.

But at times, it does come at a cost. And technology is changing our daily lives and how we interact with others. And a few examples that came to mind recently with me just living a normal life and going out. 

And those examples were self-service checkouts, so we're seeing the obsolescence of customer service in some ways, and then QR codes at restaurants, and reducing interaction between staff and customer. Now, there are some benefits, you get faster service, but it is eliminating roles. And I think to some degree creating rolelessness in jobs.

However, Daiki, as you would know, Japan seems to be an innovator in automated customer service, more recently at convenience stores. So what are you seeing at convenience stores in Japan? Because Japan has so many convenience stores?

Daiki: Yeah, there are many convenience stores and perhaps it is not specific only in Japan, the relationship between customers and store staff is becoming less and less.

The technologies developed and human relationships, I think there are basic relationships in many stores. I see self-service checkouts everywhere, and I feel that communication with store staff is decreasing recently. 

So in Japan, this tendency I see everywhere, the situations. So last time I visited Brisbane, I think it's very similar. So for example, at a supermarket, of course, there are staff and they are very friendly. But there are many self-checkout machines. So that kind of setting, I think, is very similar to Japan.

Nick: Yeah, that is a good point, we are seeing it in supermarkets. I mean, we've had it in supermarkets for quite a while. I guess even Melbourne, and I live in a city suburb, we just don't have convenience stores. So, I think the last time I was in Japan it wasn't self-service, it was always with a member of staff serving you.

Importance of customer service in Japan

So, maybe the next time I go to Japan I'll experience self-service or self-checkout at a convenience store. But this idea of self-service, is this a contradiction in a country, Japan, that prizes customer service highly? And what is the response from customers in general? Is there any resistance to these changes?

Japanese easily adapt to changes

Daiki: Yes, customer service is prized in Japan. As you know, the culture to value the customer exists and it's called omotenashi in Japanese. Being kind and polite to the customer is very important in Japan. So I think it is Japanese culture. But I think most of the people accept the changes. 

So in Japanese culture, the omotenashi, so to be polite and kind to the customers is very important, but there are recent changes. So many Japanese people accept those changes. I feel that not so many Japanese people fear confusion about rapid changes in convenience stores or the supermarket or other customer service. 

So it is very interesting. Adapting to the changes is very... For Japanese people, we easily adapt to changes. So if the change is a very big change so we can adapt to it. But maybe it is the atmosphere of Japanese people or the characteristics of Japanese people, I don't know why we can adapt to it. I think maybe it is based on Japanese culture. So what do you think about it?

Nick: I think it's a good solution to maybe a bigger problem. So we're living in a time where we're so time poor, we're so busy, we're so stressed we're dealing with so many things. So I guess automated checkout, or self-service checkout is this easy option for us where we can go into a convenience store or a supermarket, quickly buy something and we're done. 

We don't have to talk to anyone, we don't have to, you know, if we're in a bad mood, or we're in a hurry, we can just get what we want and move on. So it's very helpful. But maybe underlying it there is this bigger problem of why are we so busy and stressed. Japan prizes, I guess, that idea of ma, space, and taking things slow. 

And all these cultural practices, like the tea ceremony, where you are very much in the moment. So all of us in all countries are struggling with time management and maybe self-service and self-checkouts are a good solution to our lack of time, but maybe we have a bigger problem underneath it. 

That's what I think. What do you think? You grew up in Japan, so I guess, in the last 20 or 30 years, would you say there's a big difference between everyday life in Japan 20 years ago with Japanese living a more relaxed or less time-stressed life?

Daiki: I think both. In some parts I feel relaxed because of the technological advancements, but at the same time, I feel very stressed and we are very busy, because of the new technology. For example, like social networking services or chatting, we are now talking using zoom, so it is very convenient. I think that my students, university students, are very busy communicating using smartphones. 

So they check messages from their friends every time. Sometimes they are checking their messages during my class and I point that out. They are very busy and perhaps they feel anxious, they miss messages from their friends and they feel they have to respond as soon as possible. So yeah, I think it is very stressful. So I think that the level of stress has not decreased. So in Japan, people feel very stressed.

Nick: All right, that's a good point, I think we'll do a special episode on social media and its influence on rolefulness. But let's move on to QR codes. I shared this story with you, but I recently went to a cafe with my family, it was quite a large cafe and we entered the cafe. And we found ourselves a table and we just ordered our meals with a QR code. 

So no staff came up to greet us and to take us to the table, we just walked in, looked around, found a table, sat down, and then the first thing we all did was pull out our phones so we could look at the menu. So there was no menu offered to us. Eventually, a member of staff did come up and greet us, and that was nice. But in the end, the role of the staff just seemed to bring out the food. 

So there was no friendly banter, no friendly conversation. Then we had our meal, and then, because we had already paid, obviously by ordering on the phone, we just left without any expressions of gratitude being exchanged. It was, as I said, at a large cafe, and so we just left, I guess, the nearest exit. So this felt very strange to me, it felt like this was wrong. We  should be saying thank you.

Reduced engagement due to technology

Reduced engagement due to technology

They should be thanking us. So QR codes in restaurants are definitely becoming the norm. It certainly, again, makes ordering and paying easier, it saves time. But are we losing something with this type of automated service? What do you think, Daiki?

Daiki: I had a quite similar experience recently in Japan. A few days ago, I went to a cafe with my colleagues, and we ordered and paid using the QR code. So it is very same as you. Of course, there are store staff, but we have no chance to talk with them and say thank you to them. The system is very convenient, but we lose opportunities to enjoy communication with others. 

So when we met in Brisbane, we went together at a cafe and restaurant, and we communicated with the staff. The staff talked to us about the details of the meals. And yeah, I could say thank you to them. And so that kind of communication was really comfortable for me, especially since I'm a foreigner. 

That trip is a very important experience for me -- the memory and experience spent with you, the shop staff or the museum staff and so every memory is very important and wonderful. So I think the technology's very convenient, but losing communication with others is not good.

So it is my personal opinion, communicating in-person or talking and saying thank you or hello to each other is a very important experience for us.

Nick: I agree. And I remember that the waiter when we had lunch really looked after us. He was very polite, friendly, and chatted with us several times. So I think it added to the experience. Who knows, maybe in the future, you might have to pay extra for human service or something. So who knows? 

But I mean, screens are becoming essential in our lives. And we are at a point where if you've, if you don't take your phone, you might not be able to order at a restaurant.

So is technology and specifically the use of screens and devices becoming a facilitator or a barrier to social rolefulness?

Daiki: It's a very difficult point, but I think both. It has both positive and negative sides, especially for our social roles. The benefits, for example, face time with people far from us.

So now, you are in Melbourne, and I'm in Nagoya. Our distance is actually very far, but I can see your face and enjoy talking to you. So it is because of the technology, and so it is a very positive point, I think. 

And yeah, the affordable communication because of the new technology. So it is a very good point. But at the same time, I have concerns about the effects of new technology on our communication, too.

So it includes not only good points, but also a negative effect. In-person environments where screens or automations are becoming standard, it changes our communication style dramatically. 

So we are talking about, for example, automatic checkout service, or the QR code. So can you share any other examples of how new technologies affect our social roles?

Nick: Oh, I can and I think what we'll do, we might do an episode dedicated to this, Daiki, but I'll just touch on it now. So I do know, obviously, this is in the news, everyone's talking about it. So obviously AI is just again, this technology where we're beginning to learn to handle or become accustomed to. And so, there's this tool, chatGPT, that a lot of people are using, very helpful. 

There's also robotics. I know social robots are quite big in Japan, I've done several podcasts and interviews on social robots in Japan and their benefits on my other podcasts. And then we have this term, I came across AI anxiety with workers who fear losing their jobs to artificial intelligence. 

So yeah, our rolefulness is being influenced or maybe put in jeopardy to technology, and we're seeing AI and robotics could be a part of that. But I think we'll make a special episode, maybe on AI and robotics and whether it impacts rolefulness or how it impacts rolefulness.

So how about we finish this episode because we've talked about rolelessness today, and I think in the next episode, we're going to touch on how you can measure your rolefulness with the rolefulness scale. 

So yeah, let's do an episode on rolefulness in AI and we'll finish today. And next episode, we'll jump on to your scale, the rolefulness scale. How's that sound, Daiki?

Daiki: Okay, so let's talk about rolefulness scale, and so we hope to have a chance to talk about AI and new technology, and how it affects rolefulness. Yeah, that's a good idea.

Nick: We can do a whole episode on that. All right, Daiki, thanks so much for your time today, and I'll see you in the next episode.

Daiki: Yeah, thank you very much.