How Generation Y Can Lead China

Posted by Reading Time: 10 minutes

Cultural sensitivities when grooming Chinese talent for management

By Navjot Singh

Mar. 22 – They are eager to be successful and gain experience, yet they do not like to be told what to do. They believe they know what is best for them and have developed a reputation for being highly decisive, sometimes arrogant and judgmental. Sounds a bit like spoiled teenagers, and you may not be far off the mark here either.

In 21st Century China, the most discouraging human resources management issues, for both foreign and domestic companies, are the dual troubles of recruitment and retention of qualified and professional staff. As China’s emerging Generation Y (Gen Y), born in the 1980s, comes of age, however, new challenges are being introduced. China’s speedy transformation in the past 30 years’ from a planned and isolated economy to a flourishing, international market has assisted in the creation of a generation gap that is much more dramatic than the same gap in the West.

It may well be that China’s Gen Yers are the least well understood, and therefore least effectively managed, among local workers. China’s older generations, even those in their thirties with international experience and progressive outlooks, find that managing Gen Yers doesn’t come as easily as one would expect.

Nevertheless, this group of young professionals is comprised of educated, confident, and independent decision makers. They are China’s future managers—learning how best to prepare them for leadership positions should be a top priority for everyone.

Deng’s legacy
By the beginning of 2010, China’s Generation X (born in the 1970s) was made up around 40 percent of its urban workers. As children, they grew up observing China’s development from a backward and insular starting point. They, therefore, tend to be somewhat more understanding than their younger peers and keener to learn from countries and companies that are viewed as more modern and advanced.

In contrast, China’s Gen Y, accounting for around 30 percent of the urban workforce, are Deng Xiaoping’s offspring. Born in the 1980s soon after the launch of the “Reform and Opening Up” period, they came of age after those reforms had been introduced, and have only known a China that is already established as a global economic powerhouse. For them, China’s catching up phase with the world. Their country’s newfound confidence and pride has engendered their individual and collective self-esteem. They are too proud and take most things in everyday China for granted without the knowledge of how hard their forefathers worked in order to get them to this level.

Gen Y workers have had that sense of confidence reinforced through personal experience. Many have worked in multinational companies, most have foreign colleagues and friends, and some have traveled and studied overseas. They have seen firsthand that the lifestyles available to them in Beijing and Shanghai are not necessarily substandard compared to those in London and New York. This applies not just to Beijing and Shanghai natives, but to those from many provincial cities such as Shenzhen (a Special Economic Zone) and Guangzhou (capital of Guangdong Province). Attitudes and living habits are changing in the big cities as many Gen Yers experiment with a Western lifestyle, such as having a strong passion for McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks, rather than sticking to traditional Chinese food for breakfast.

These attitudes are spilling into the workplace as well. The vast majority of multinational companies in China have a layer of Gen X middle managers who are inclined to be less assertive than their Gen Y staff. These managers may rarely voice opinions in meetings, yet are now managing a group of young people with good English skills, full of confidence in speaking up and interacting with foreigners. The young want to take initiative and share ideas but lack experience. Their immediate bosses at the middle level feel pressured, not respected, and are unable to deal with their young subordinates.

Even those foreign managers that have been in China for a considerable time have observed that—over the years—there has been a gradual shift in terms of the working lifestyle of younger employees.

“Managers, irrespective if they are foreign or Chinese, do not feel they are being respected at all like they used to be in, say the early part of the 20th Century. Instead Gen Y tend to directly challenge their management and are not afraid to do that,” conceded one foreign manager at an MNC in Guangzhou.

While many graduating students are finding it difficult to find jobs, the booming economy and tight labor market are creating high demand for Gen Yers with several years of work.

Unlike older generations who were assigned to work units, ostensibly for their whole working lives, it is not uncommon for Gen Yers to be targeted by head-hunters just two years after entering the workforce. Employment opportunities are easy to come by, and even candidates with modest profiles may get multiple job offers at any given time.

Having only known boom times and job security, Gen Yers can’t help but believe the best is yet to come, both for the economy in general and for themselves in particular. They want to strengthen their experience and knowledge, to make the most of their abilities, and to obtain fulfillment through contribution and success. These motivations drive behavior in both developed economies and China, but there is an extreme sense of impatience in the country.

Social liberalization
Changing cultural values have also played a role in widening the generation gap. Traditional Chinese values are conservative, encourage individuals to know their places in the social order and play their parts, and thereby to strive for social harmony. In practice this means living within societal constraints, fearing disapproval from the family and the community, and making life decisions in accordance with the expectations of elders. This kind of upbringing encourages workers whose main weakness is a lack of capacity for creative leadership.

While pertinent to Generation X, the same is not true for Gen Y. Over the past three decades, the “Reform and Opening” policy has inadvertently facilitated social liberalization. Having been exposed to a diverse range of influences, however, they have come to realize that the philosophy and guidance provided by their schooling has little worth or application in today’s China. This has left many Gen Yers struggling over exactly what goals they should aim for, and how to achieve them.

Another factor shaping Gen Y behavior is that most are the only child in their families. They were born during the period of strict family planning policies that limited families to one child per couple. This has meant that they have been doted on by their parents through childhood into early adulthood, and in many cases by two sets of grandparents; in addition to having a strong sense of self-worth, they tend to be self-centered, arrogant, and self-righteous in addition to having a strong sense of self-worth. They tend to find it difficult to take “no” for an answer. They can be exceedingly argumentative and highly reluctant to accept criticism or advice. And they often tend to misjudge their abilities, while holding an embroidered opinion of what they are due.

Of course, not all Gen Yers share the same characteristics. Many other factors, especially family upbringing and material wealth, can influence individual personalities. Many doing business in big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen face difficulties in integrating their newly recruited Gen Y into the workplace because of attitude problems posed by sometimes arrogant Gen Yers.

To begin with, Gen Yers have high expectations of their employers and the workplace. They expect their employers to provide them opportunities to develop and prove themselves. They want training and coaching on the one hand, and new experiences and responsibilities on the other—not just frequently, but on an ongoing basis.

Furthermore, they expect their employers to have very positive corporate cultures, with flat hierarchies that allow them to be involved in decision-making. They look for leaders that motivate rather than punish and promote based on meritocracy. In addition, they expect to be well remunerated, and even though many have only been in the workforce for several years, their salaries are already outstripping those of their 30-something colleagues.

For Gen Yers, their “growth needs” don’t apply solely to the workplace, but also to relationships, hobbies, and travel. They, therefore, also expect their employers to offer them an attractive work plus-life balance. While effort and enthusiasm will be high during the working day, few will sacrifice their personal lives out of duty or for the sake of advancement, and the majority will call it a day at 5 p.m. Employers are increasingly finding their Gen Yers heading out of the office when tasks remain half-finished back at their desks. Heated arguments sometimes ensue. China’s older generations find all this hard to swallow. They expect younger generations to show respect and to be willing to serve, and in return, the younger workers will become to be benevolent and concerned managers. It is not easy for the older generation to change management styles. This means learning to earn the respect of Gen Yers by working openly and cooperatively with them, and actively contributing to their development as professionals. Feelings of frustration among middle managers are thus becoming more common, even if they remain well-hidden.

Gen Yers have yet to realize that valuable experience doesn’t mean racking up lists of responsibilities and then moving on, but actually assuming those responsibilities for long enough to properly understand them and learn from them. Yet it only takes a small grumble about their current position before the Gen Yer begins scanning the recruitment websites for their next position.

Companies striving for sustainable leadership in China have no option but to develop a solution for managing Gen Yers. This is not just a matter of reducing the risks and costs of high turnover rates due to widespread job hopping; this is an opportunity to harness China’s best educated generation, workers who are confident in their ability to contribute and have a stronger aptitude than their elders for independent thinking.

Companies that fail to respond to this challenge will only face worse turnover rates. What is needed is more sophisticated approach to human resources (HR) management, covering the spectrum from talent development to managerial practices to corporate culture.

Successful companies in China will increasingly be those that devote substantial resources and management attention to talent development, making it an integral part of their business strategy.

Talent development must now extend beyond the most valuable highfliers (who are normally among those in their thirties) to other value contributors, especially those in their twenties. On one hand, this helps attract, motivate, and retain Gen Yers, who are the most fickle segment of the workforce.

On the other hand, it also helps with the thirty-something highfliers, since they are often the ones who have to manage and work with Gen Yers.

Still, there’s no avoiding the fact that companies will find talent development for younger workers more challenging than for their older colleagues. A major cause is the current haphazard approach to career development among Gen Yers who are the first to have so many options and opportunities open to them. Since their parents generally are not international business professionals, they can only provide a limited amount of support and guidance to their children’s careers. Thus, many Gen Y members must steer their careers on their own. Given their lack of wisdom and experience, it is unsurprising that some are going off course. Too many are jumping between professions instead of making carefully considered career choices, while others choose short-term promotions over long-term skills development. Turnover rates for some companies are way beyond what one would expect in, say, Europe or America.

Companies need to fill that gap left by parents, schooling, and the government, helping employees to pursue personal growth by aiding them in identifying and reaching their personal potential within the workplace. In practical terms, HR cannot manage this alone, but must assign mentors to each individual. In some companies, this mentoring role will best be filled by line managers and in other companies by senior colleagues outside the line of management.

What is important is that mentors take the time required to build a level of trust to provide guidance regarding personal growth and career development, a role that nobody has ever played in the lives of most of these young people. A starting point for all mentors is to help Gen Y take better control of their self-awareness, with a focus on identifying their core strengths and personality types within the workplace.

Where talent development is more of a year-by-year issue, management techniques are a day-to-day challenge. Looking forward, China’s traditional top-down management technique: “I am the boss and you’ll do as I say,” is becoming much less effective. If used today, this approach runs the risk that employees may end up disliking management, and quite possibly ignoring superiors on most occasions. In theory, it seems achievable, but speaking from my own experience, I can say that in practice managing Gen Y is not as straightforward as one would imagine.

The vast majority of managers’ in multinationals have experienced that Gen Yers are very ambitious, demanding, hypersensitive, and nearly allergic to criticism. They are confounded by the quantity of “emotion” Gen Y employees add to the workplace. The combination of high intelligence and over excitability explains numerous difficulties managers have with their Gen Y staff. Ordering them around will likely undermine their motivation and provoke resistance. While they take for granted that hierarchy exists, Gen Y does not obey the same hierarchical rules Gen X plays by. This creates serious friction between young staff and their supervisors.

Managers need to stop “telling” and start “helping” and “working together”—taking time and making the effort to explain the thinking behind decisions. Clearly, the nature of relationships in the workplace is changing. The coaching relationship is one of the most significant within modern management techniques.

Yet, in this unstable labor market, there is a strong temptation to reward Gen Yers with excessive encouragement and praise to keep them happy.

Instead, clear standards should be set to identify shortcomings and provide feedback. This is particularly important whenever Gen Y start to feel undervalued in their current positions and impatient for more responsibility. Temporary responsibilities can be granted and performance against certain standards measured to determine their readiness. In such cases, a Gen Yer will likely be more open to discussing areas for improvement and receiving constructive criticism.

In turn, they will likely credit the company with providing valuable support. This is just one of many modern management techniques that companies can consider deploying in China.

But just as traditional management techniques don’t suit China’s Gen Y, modern management techniques often do not suit China’s older generations. Managers in China need to adapt their management style to those who they are managing. From my personal experience, I actually found this to be very true. It’s about adapting your personality to that of the employee that you are managing. The management style may have to vary depending on the situation, even within a given age group. For example, managers can delegate control while remaining involved in decision-making and problem-solving for tasks handled by Gen Yer with some experience. But for tasks that are new to them, managers should take over decision-making and seek input instead.

Companies need to ensure that they are defining and developing a modern management culture, and are carefully and appropriately managing the process of change from the old to the new. Gen Y may be a media topic, but older generations may not recognize the issue in their own workplace.

Therefore, raising awareness is the fundamental first step.

Final thoughts
China’s great opportunity is that Western companies fail to understand Gen Y. From a cultural point of view, these young people are open to Chinese values such as harmony. Even though the answer may simply be that Gen Y represent the future managers’ of a company, foreign or Chinese, it is absolutely crucial for any company doing business in China and with the Chinese people to understand Gen Y, and to find ways of working with them effectively so as to tap their enormous potential. In the early part of the 21st Century, the issue was China’s Gen Xers, who then were viewed as immature and unprofessional. Now, that generation has matured and is playing an important role in Chinese business and society.

The same will likely be true of Gen Y. For those managing businesses in China today, however, waiting for their Gen Y to mature when the turnover levels are so high is not a practical option.

This is a structural issue requiring a structured approach. Companies that develop the right solutions will attract, motivate and retain very capable Gen Y, who will later become their middle and senior-level managers, and lead China into a bright future.

Navjot Singh is a British freelance journalist and photographer who has lived and worked in China for many years.

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