China's Generational Cultural Change

Author: Joy Huang

When we think of mentoring inside a business environment, we normally think that the more senior person mentors the more junior person. What about the reverse? In China, some hi-tech companies are doing exactly that, to pair up a senior person to learn from a junior person. The objective is to help the senior person keep up with the latest trends, technology and lifestyle of the younger generation, so that they can be effective in delivering the best product and services to their customers.

The "post-80" (born after 1980) generation in China is living a life that bares little resemblance to their elders. The economic boom in China and the "one-child policy" that parallel their growing up provides them with unprecedented opportunities, exposure to the west, wealth and stability. As this generation enters the work force, they are also making an impact on the traditional values of the society and corporate cultures at large. Here are a few areas where this change is shown:

  1. More individualistic
    Traditional Chinese value the ideal and goal of the greater group. In times of crisis, people generally choose to go with the voice of the group instead of their own. The "post-80" generation is more and more putting their own needs and wants first. They learn to ask themselves what they want, not just what their parents, teachers and society want them to be. They experiment with various ways to express their individualism, and relish in the newfound power and thrill of following their own minds above that of the group.
  2. More independent
    Traditional Chinese family value and education system have both discouraged dissent and challenging to authoritative figures. In the family, the authoritative figures are the parents. At school, they are the teachers. And at work, they are the bosses. Independence is not a trait that is highly valued in general, neither are questioning and critical thinking. For the "post-80" generation, opportunities to work in private companies, joint ventures and foreign companies at an early age provide them with a different framework. They are learning to be more independent and take initiatives and risks. They begin to taste the sweet success of challenging authoritative figures without consequences in a supportive environment.
  3. More confident
    This is directly linked to the macro economic rise of China as a nation in the world stage. The phenomenal economic achievement of China in the last 30 years brought to its people a sense of pride that is somewhat new to most Chinese people. For the "post-80" generation, this is the only period of Chinese history that they have lived in, and they naturally possess a level of confidence that is unmatched by the previous generations. They feel they deserve more respect, and they are more self-assured of their way of doing things.

This cultural shift goes beyond the urban office buildings. It is also felt by manufacturing factories that are caught with shortage of labor despite the large pool of qualified workers. The main work force for this sector is young people from the rural areas who come to work in the cities. The younger generations are now demanding better jobs with higher pay and are no longer content with being entry-level workers in factories. With better education and brighter outlook for life, they look for better opportunities that their parents could only dream of.

Still, despite the growing influence that the younger generations have in reshaping the Chinese culture going forward, the predominant culture in the business world remains largely intact. The main reason is that the most senior leadership in business today is from earlier generations. The "post-80" generation will take over at some point in the future, but not yet. In most cases, they are making "small waves" inside their prescribed roles, where the larger corporate culture still dictates the roles they play and how they make decisions and resolve issues.

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