Generation Y with Chinese characteristics
Taylor, Michael. (Oct 2008)
Growing up in an era when their country was being transformed from a socialist economy of producers into a capitalist economy of consumers, China's 200 million strong Generation Y has witnessed social and economic changes perhaps unparalleled in human history. Born between 1980 and 1989, they range in age from 19 to 28. Michael Stanat, author of China's Generation Y: Understanding the Future Leaders of the World's Next Superpower, characterizes China's Generation Y as being optimistic about the future, having a newfound affinity for consumerism and fully accepting their historic role in helping to turn the world's fastest-growing major economy into the next superpower. According to a survey conducted earlier this year by British recruitment consultancy FreshMinds Talent and Management Today, Generation Y was found to be ambitious, brand conscious and tending to move jobs more often than previous generations. Companies would also be wise to recognize that families have a large degree of influence over China's Generation Y.
They are optmistic, they are ambitious, they get bored easily and they are increasingly concerned about such issues as work-life balance and social corporate responsbility, writes Michael Taylor.
Growing up in an era when their country was being transformed from a socialist economy of producers into a capitalist economy of consumers, China's 200 million strong Generation Y has witnessed social and economic changes perhaps unparalleled in human history. Born between 1980 and 1989, they range in age from 19 to 28.
Michael Stanat, author of China's Generation Y: Understanding the Future Leaders of the World's Next Superpower, characterizes Chinas Generation Y as being optimistic about the future, having a newfound affinity for consumerism and fully accepting their historic role in helping to turn the world's fastest-growing major economy into the next superpower.
"The country struggles with one of the world's largest socio-economic divides determined by geography, obviously posing political problems for the central government," Stanat says. "The lack of understanding some in China have of their country's move to a market economy further compounds the trouble."
If Generation X - a term popularized by the Canadian fiction writer Douglas Coupland in his 1991 book Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture was shaped by the Vietnam War, Generation Y was molded by the arrival of the Internet as a mainstream communications network and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Generation X was regarded as apathetic, cynical and disillusioned. Generation Y has an entirely different mindset. According to a survey conducted earlier this year by British recruitment consultancy FreshMinds Talent and Management Today, Generation Y was found to be ambitious, brand conscious and tending to move jobs more often than previous generations. But it also found that they were more of a continuation of Generation X than a completely distinct group. "Many of their responses in our study were indicative of an 'age and stage' rather than being fundamentally different," Alistair Leatherwood, managing director of FreshMinds Talent is quoted in The Guardian newspaper as saying.
Little emperors Tony Dickel, CEO of the MRI China Group in Shanghai, believes that there are significant differences between Generation Y and earlier generations in China and Generation Y in other countries. To start with, they are members of the "Only Child Generation," which makes them what he calls "a very interesting group indeed".
As with Generation Y in other parts of the world, China's Generation Y are exceptionally savvy when it comes to technology. They are especially aware of their value in the job market. They have limited loyalty to any particular employer. And they expect a stimulating environment on the job.
One of the things that sets them apart from their counterparts overseas is that the Chinese by nature are "born to network". "China remains a guanxi-oriented culture by tradition," Dickel says. "Chinese are masters at developing and energising their networks and are sensitive to the exchange of mutual obligations that keeps a network alive. It has been this way for generations."
Some traditions die hard, and the cultural importance that the Chinese place on networking has remained strong. But technology has had an impact on the way people network. It is no longer necessary to keep in touch in person.
"The manner of networking in the past started with extended family and friends, classmates and then through to university alumni and business associates," Dickel says. "Much of it in the past had been face to face, but the 'only child' generation feels less comfortable with this and are likely to spend more time with online 'social networking' or staring into their mobile phones texting .
China's growing economic prowess seems to be changing this generation is other ways, as well. "It is well documented that China's "little emperor" generation is less inclined to follow the traditional Confucian work ethic," Dickel says. "Work-life balance has been the primary concern of graduates for the past few years rather than the usual career-related concerns. They are more likely to be motivated by fun and to have a consumer mindset. They do not want stress as part of their daily lives."
Unrealistic expectations. One of the things making matters worse has been the growing number of university graduates with friends - or at least friends of friends - who have profited immensely from the China's New Capitalism. They look at this type of success as something that should be easy to come by. "Many have unrealistic expectations about their first roles and think that success comes on a plate," Dickel says. "They will not accept jobs that they feel are beneath their unrealistically high standards and sometimes elect to remain unemployed at home. The problem is that their families appear to tolerate this behavior."
Because China's Generation Y has different need and goals, they are less likely to be "turned on" by things that motivated previous generations. Challenging careers and financial rewards fail to motivate them - unless they are very high.
"They need to be spoiled in different ways," Dickel says. "They are used to having a voice in their families and need to feel consulted. Command and control management styles are not going to result in a happy Generation Y employee, and companies will find things like strict dress codes or adherence to a typical 9 to 5 pattern difficult, as can be seen by my Crocs- clad employees strolling in at any time between 8 and 10."
Companies would also be wise to recognize that families have a large degree of influence over China's Generation Y. "They spoil their children and like to think that the company they work for does also," Dickel says. "If the employees come home complaining about how they are being treated, it is likely that parents will encourage them to look elsewhere."
Colin Russell, human resources vice-president for Alcatel-Lucent Asia Pacific, one of the world's leading telecommunications and service providers, has been in Shanghai for four years and has been involved with China for more than 18 years. He, too, has noticed a marked change in attitudes among recent graduates.
China's changing role
"I would say that there is a very strong difference between the former generation, or the traditionalists in China, and the new generation - for both managers and employees," Russell says. "The new generation clearly understands market forces, they are highly motivated - both in terms of compensation and careers, they are highly ambitious and increasingly mobile and they now are growing up and have experience in a much more global environment." The changes taking place are increasingly moving in both directions. Not only is the presence of foreign companies being taken more and more for granted, Chinese companies are also starting to make their presence felt abroad.
"This generation is becoming used to multinationals being involved in China in every aspect and in China being involved with the rest of the world," Russell says. "They are used to a country and an environment that is much more externally focused than it was before." Because of their different backgrounds, they have very different attitudes towards their careers. This is creating challenges for HR.
"So the contrast really gets down to - the traditionalists are characterized by security, stability and jobs for life," Russell says. "The new generation is not just having different careers. They have had very little experience in developing stable careers and these are positives as well as negatives." For employers, the implications can be difficult to sort out. "People are now going into the world of work and having different careers so they are more flexible," Russell says. "They are willing to consider other options and move around. The issue with that is we're not necessarily developing people who will have the experience in the future that the managers that we have in place today have."
According to Amanda Hyndman, general manager of The Excelsior Hong Kong, a four-star hotel in the former British colony, several other things differentiate Generation Y from previous generations. One of the most significant is that they are not always heading for the career placement office before they have even donned their cap and gown. Gap years following graduation are becoming increasingly popular.
"They are taking a year off after graduation," Hyndman says. "They want to take their time determining what they want to do. Furthermore, they won't have just one career. They will have two or three." But if Generation Y is slow at the starting gate, once their careers are underway, they expect to make up for lost time. "They are ambitious, expecting careers to move very fast," Hyndman says. "It's not a career for life that they are expecting. They don't expect to pay their dues. They are driven, and they expect their careers to move fast."
When considering what companies they want to work for, Generation Y is not just interested in what is it in for them. They also want to know about such issues as a company's commitment to corporate social responsibility, its environmental policies and if it engages in charitable activities.
"They are concerned about philanthropy and charitable works, corporate social responsibility and green issues," Hyndman says. "They also want constant feedback. They have a constant need for feedback and affirmation - and a sense that they 'own' a part of the company. They want to feel that they are making a difference."
International opportunities for local employees.
One of the ways of retaining talent is by creating meaningful overseas career opportunities for local staff, says Colin Russell, human resources vicepresident for Alcatel-Lucent Asia Pacific.
"Because of the number of companies setting up in China because of the opportunities here and because a lot of Chinese companies are looking to go abroad and become multinationals themselves, it means there are lots of opportunities and diere is not enough talent to go around," Russell says. "It means there is a constant ratcheting up of wage and benefit expectations as people move around very quickly, and it's quite difficult to retain people."
The focus for companies needs to go beyond making sure that they pay competitively. They also need to have a strong focus on other means of retaining people, such as by providing good career development opportunities and good promotion prospects.
"In our case, we provide good international career development opportunities," Russell says. "What we have done in the last couple of years is moved a lot of our experienced sales people in China into Southeast Asia and increasingly into Africa and the Middle East because there are a lot of opportunities coming up. Ports, for example, are upgrading their telecommunications infrastructure, and a lot of this is being financed by Chinese businessmen - especially in Southeast Asia or with the support of the Chinese government itself, especially in some of the African countries."
The move has been welcomed by local staff. "This has been very positive because we have demonstrated that we are not only giving them career development opportunities in China, but the international experience they obtain allows them to be promoted when they return."