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Are The Kids Alright

March 16, 2007
Related Topics: Managing International Operations, Global Business Issues, Strategic Planning
They’re called the "little emperors," but their burden is big.

China’s 20-somethings are given that imperial nickname because so many of them are single children—the result of the country’s population control policies. Seen as spoiled at times, young Chinese nevertheless have big responsibilities both in their family lives and when it comes to the country’s future leadership ranks.

Given the combination of China’s rapid economic growth and a "lost generation" that grew up during the country’s anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution, the younger set is under pressure to get a good education and take on leadership roles at an early age.

In many cases, Chinese nationals in their 20s grew up not only as the only child, but as the only grandchild for two sets of grandparents, says Maura Fallon, founder of Hong Kong-based consulting firm Fallon International. Having six doting adults and no brothers or sisters in the family can mean little familiarity with compromising, Fallon says. "They don’t have to learn that give-and-take that you do when you have siblings," she says.

China’s young may lack teamwork skills, but they nonetheless have responsibilities for the "team" that is their family. And familial duties are spurring ambition among young Chinese, according to a recent report from business group the Conference Board. "Young people are often hungry for responsibility, position and the trappings of success in order to support not only themselves, but also their aging and large extended families," the Conference Board said. Many young Chinese managers will readily move between employers for a bigger salary, more status and more opportunities, the report said.

The young and their career restlessness play against a backdrop of a dearth of leaders in China prepared to manage in a multinational setting. That situation is related to another generational issue. People 40 and over in China frequently are not well-educated, thanks in part to school closings during the country’s Cultural Revolution.

As a result, organizations in China often advance a junior manager before that person is ready to move up the corporate ladder. Those premature promotions lead to lower-quality work in the vital China market, contribute to salary inflation and disrupt corporate succession plans.

In addition, hasty career upgrades can come with titles that are made up and inconsistently applied across an organization, creating confusion over job roles and internal equity problems.

From the perspective of big companies, another problem relating to China’s young people is many of them aren’t interested in traditional multinationals, says consultant Nick Zhang. Zhang, a Shanghai resident who has worked in multinationals such as Johnson & Johnson and has led two Chinese tech startups, says widespread fascination with entrepreneurs has dimmed enthusiasm in the country for careers as a professional manager.

In contrast to the 1980s and early 1990s, when young Chinese college graduates were eager to land jobs in multinational corporations, today’s youth dream of startup glory, Zhang says. "Very few of them want to work at a very respectable company with a 100-year history," he says. "They want to start their own company. They want to get rich quick."

Then there’s the question of how well China’s education system is grooming young people for jobs in the global economy. In 2005, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. estimated that less than 10 percent of the 15.7 million university graduates expected in China between 2003 and 2008 would be suitable for employment in multinational corporations, in part because of poor English.

The recent Conference Board report said China’s education system relies too heavily on memorization. "Companies need people with creative writing and speaking skills, teamwork skills and leadership ability," the report added, "which are not yet taught well in most of China’s universities and graduate programs."

On the other hand, Chinese authorities are pushing to improve teaching standards in universities. And there’s greater interest in management education in the country.

Consultant Fallon also sees Chinese youth as hungry to expand their minds and skills.

"There’s a huge desire to learn," she says.

To some observers, it won’t be surprising if China’s "little emperors" someday play large roles on the world stage. One factor is the growing attention to how the best of Chinese and Western principles can be combined in leaders.

Jonathan Taylor, beverage giant Coca-Cola’s vice president of human resources for China, Mongolia, Taiwan and Hong Kong, says students graduating from Chinese universities today are developing a blend of intellect and emotional savvy that will help them in international settings. He has little doubt young people in China will one day assume the reins of major global companies.

"Why not?" he asks. "It would be arrogant to think that people in some parts of the world have a monopoly on leadership."

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