A generation ago, Makoto Baba would have been just another job-hopping loser. But the 27-year-old aspiring musician represents a new breed...

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TOKYO — A generation ago, Makoto Baba would have been just another job-hopping loser. But the 27-year-old aspiring musician represents a new breed of Japanese who are defying past standards of success by working temporary jobs to finance their dreams — becoming a dancer, poet or even a farmer.

The ranks of such “freeters” — a combination of the English “free” and “arbeiter,” the German word for “worker” — have ballooned in recent years, surpassing 4 million, more than double the number in 1990, according to Japanese government research.

But fears are growing among business and government leaders that an apparently unmotivated generation may fail to acquire the skills needed to keep the country globally competitive.

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Like Baba, whose first love is traditional taiko drums, freeters symbolize a changing Japan, where younger people are more assertive and seek out spiritual fulfillment rather than the material comforts and social status sought by their parents and grandparents.

Japan’s changing business climate also has contributed to the number of freeters. Demand for cheaper, part-time workers is increasing as companies try to stay globally competitive and cut back on hiring full-fledged employees with generous benefit packages.

And the growing income gap emerging between freeters and those with stable jobs is exacerbating the relatively new divisions in a society where nearly everyone was considered middle-class just a decade or two ago.

Most freeters make about $18,000 a year, experts estimate, while the average annual income for a full-time employee is roughly $63,000.

The government is concerned that such a gap could erode tax revenues — a major worry in a country with growing ranks of elderly who are dependent on state-run pension and health-care systems. Businesses, nonprofit groups and government offices alike have set up study groups to tackle the so-called “freeter problem.”

During decades of modernization after World War II, freeters didn’t even exist as a category, with unemployment at stunning 2 percent levels. Jobless rates have recently hovered at mid-4 percent levels — high by Japanese standards.

At one time, the Japanese dream was to land a job at a respectable corporation that promised lifetime employment. That myth was shattered by the burst of the speculative bubble economy in the late 1980s, when big-name companies announced massive layoffs to cut costs and stay afloat.

Yasuyuki Nambu, head of job-referral company Pasona, who claims to be “the original freeter,” has made this a new branch of his booming business. One program allows freeters to try out farming.

“Up to now, it may have been enough to simply pursue affluence,” Nambu said recently in a speech to the Tokyo Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan. “Now, people are beginning to feel that true affluence is more internal.”

Toshihiro Sakuma, 29, is seriously considering becoming a farmer after taking part in a Pasona internship. He has also worked at a movie theater and an archaeological site.

But in true freeter fashion, he says he isn’t quite sure what he’ll be doing next year.