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Tang Ningyu: Managing the China's Millennials Workers

Alumni and Public Relations Office 2017-06-13

Traditional ways of employee management are increasingly being tested as large numbers of Millennials enter workplaces for the first time. Frequent job-hopping and extreme reactions to stress, such as the spate of suicides in the plant of manufacturer Foxconn shocked the society and raised the question of how to manage a new generation of workers for CEOs.


Dividing generations by historic events

People are generally more inclined to divide generations by decades, which is evident in such phrases as Post-70s, Post-80s and Post-90s. But in the case of contemporary China, it might be more sensible to put people who are not only close in age, but also experienced the same historic events into one group, as that shared experience could greatly affect their lives, notes Professor Tang Ningyu from Antai College of Economics and Management, Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Using this method, Professor Tang and her team singled out two milestones in China's recent history as their 'generation dividers', the Reform and Opening-up in 1979 and the launch of Shanghai Stock Exchange in 1990. They categorise those born between 1961-77 as the 'pre-reform generation'; those born between 1978-89 as the 'reform generation'; and those born after 1990 as the 'post-reform generation'.

The pre-reformers have experienced the changes and turbulences in the early days of the People's Republic, the reform-era ones were mostly amazed by dramatic changes after China's opening up, while the post-reform generation was largely raised in an era of market economy and technological breakthrough. These experiences have shaped their values, their hopes and fears, and their aspirations to and attitudes towards work.


Each man has his merits

Professor Tang contends that each group has their strengths and weaknesses. 'The older generation has a greater sense of collectiveness, while the younger ones focus more on individual goals and work-life balance.'

'While personal development on the job may not be a major factor for the older generation, it is considered to be one of the most important for the Post-90s, who are also more creative, keen to try new things and want to achieve success in a relatively short period of time.'

'Compared with their parents though, members of the new workforce are generally less capable of enduring hardships and dealing with stress. And their loyalty is more to a certain career path than to a specific organisation or a leader.'

An interesting example, says Professor Tang, is that in a conference setting, seating yourself beside senior leadership tends to be viewed as an honour and privilege by employees from the pre-reform generation, while those born after 'would prefer the bosses to come to them'.


Inter-generational differences may not be as pronounced as it seems

A survey of more than 2,000 employees nationwide by Professor Tang and her team revealed that, surprisingly, people born after the Reform and Opening-up are more inclined to conservative ideas than the 'reform generation', in fact, their views are more similar to those of the pre-reform ones.

Professor Tang explains that people are more likely to respect and embrace traditional values as the society grows richer. In addition, as parents of the post-reform generation, the pre-reform group actually pass on their values successfully through wider socialisation.

Therefore, Professor Tang believes that a multi-generational workforce has both differences and common values, and instead of highlighting extreme individual cases, businesses should pay more attention to the majority and device effective ways in management and supervisory.



Challenges to traditional management model

The diversification of employees in contemporary China is multifaceted, not only in terms of age and gender but also ideas and believes, as well as ways of hiring and working.

In the past, work and employment are relatively stable, most people would stay in the same organisation, repeat the same task day in day out until retirement. Now, however, the concept of work is becoming more fluid.

New models such as distant working, freelance and the sharing economy are transforming ways of employment, changing the psychological contracts and promises between employer and employee at the same time.

Earlier contracts tend to be fixed and long-range, focusing on workers' long-term development and their long-term contribution to the firm, while current contracts are more flexible and usually acknowledge various ways of contribution other than just manning the desks 9 to 5. Companies are also shifting to more flexible and non-standard employment.

'It is worth noting that although flexibility does bring new space and new opportunities, it also creates more complexity and uncertainty to organisation management,' suggests Professor Tang.


So what kind of management is better suited to today's diversified workforce? 

After interviewing 12 companies and 54 individual employees, Professor Tang and her team point out the importance of tolerance.

'In traditional Chinese corporate culture, leaders often assume superior power and authority, which makes employees weary of mistakes and consequent punishment,' says Professor Tang. 'Under this circumstances, establishing a culture that tolerates mistakes and a corresponding management mechanism would bring huge benefits, especially in managing and stimulating the younger generation.'

A survey by a job-hunting site also finds that 'respect for employees' is voted the most important factor when selecting an employer among millennials, surpassing 'competitive salaries' and 'fringe benefits'.


Work hard to improve themselves and the society as a whole

Professor Tang thinks that the first thing to bear in mind when communicating with the younger generation is respect. The Post-90s were born in a highly-open society and value individuality greatly. This is not the same as selfish however, rather an emphasis on recognising individuality and treating each other with mutual respect.

One example, notes Professor Tang, is the demand for personal space. JD.com received wide praises from workers after changing its employee lodgings from dormitory-style shared-rooms to standard single or double ones.

'Adding a sense of participation is also important,' says Professor Tang. 'Taking part in the decision making process will increase a sense of meaningfulness and significance in work.'

Finally, expressing appreciation is also highly regarded by Professor Tang and her team. Their research discovers that positive encouragement is strongly linked to better performance and less stress among the Post-90s.

This not only includes praises in offices, but also working hard to do something good and make the society better place. CSR projects which links values of the organisation to wider social responsibility are effective stimulus in this area.


With 40% of the workforce being the Post-80s, Professor Tang suggests that mutual understanding, adjustment and adaptation are essential for a smooth workplace.

Selecting new applicants with similar ideas and values as the organisation, the team and the supervisor during the hiring process would also help, as Professor Tang's research indicates, like-minded supervisors and employees, and teams with shared values would significantly reduce conflicts, increase job satisfaction rate, and boost productivity both individually and collectively.


This article (in Chinese) was originally published on Jun11, 2017 by Xinmin Evening Post