Apologies to everyone for the long stretch between this post and my last; it is crunch time at work, and recently I’ve been doing more reading than writing.
As a blogger who cannot help but analyze the world through demographic and sociological trends, I have (as I am sure many of you have also) been saying for a long time that it is critical for us to understand the One Child Policy generation if we are to better foresee the direction China will develop.
For fairly comprehensive information on the One Child Policy, click here.
Controlling population growth. Done. But this is where the One Child Policy experiment really gets interesting.
For me, the One-Child Policy generation is intriguing and alarming as it is a grand socialogical experiment, happening just at the time when the world’s next great economic power is relying on this generation to power their next stage of growth. This stage of growth depends on China’s rising companies and budding industries, and these organizations are in-turn reliant on the cooperation of the people who make the whole thing move.
Now think of your childhood classroom, where kids interact with one another and their teacher. The dynamics of the interactions you remember as a kid are greatly influenced by the fact that you, or some of your childhood classmates, were older or younger brothers and sisters of other kids. This means by the time you first met them in the classroom, they already had 5 or 6 years interacting with another person their age, and also sharing the love & affection of their parents with another. That makes a big difference in work-group dynamics, both in the classroom and later at work. Patience, Sharing, Communication Skills, Passive/Assertive balance, are all influenced by whether a family has one or more children.
Now flip back to the China experience, and if you can imagine it, a whole classroom of single children. Can you deduce that the interactions & cooperation between One-Child Policy children would be different?
We have to remember though, that the One Child Policy came into effect in 1979, meaning that the first children of the One-Child Policy generation are not really children anymore; they turn 30 this year. The One-Child Policy generation has stealthily grown up and become adults while we weren’t looking, and the first waves are now in and among us in the workplace.
Hitting the workforce & changing organizational behaviour
If I had been born and raised in China, I would be among this first group of ‘One-Childers’ (I’ll call them that for brevity). Having lived in China for a number of years, I have watched as this group of my peers graduated from university, found their first jobs, and gradually made headway in their careers with the few years of experience they have since gained.
This first group of One-Childers (those born between 1979-1985) have actually been fairly successful in adjusting to worklife and work-life balance. They have been able to integrate well into pre-existing company structures and have proven to be able to take responsibities. Many, watching the generation before them (like Jack Ma (1964) of Alibaba, Charles Zhang (1964) of Sohu, and Pan Shiyi (1963) of SOHO China) even caught the hungry and drive to be successful.
But this first group of One-Childers is a little misleading, and is not a good indicator of things to come with the rest of the One-Child Policy generation. Here’s why:
1) A number of the first group of One-Childers are actually younger siblings and not really single children. As the roll-out of the One-Child Policy varied depending on the region of China, families who had their first child before 1979, may have had a chance to have a second child after 1979 without being penalized.
2) The Open-Door Policy having just been instilled in 1978, the first group of One-Childers came from families just emerging from the cultural revolution. Thus, the early half of their lives are generally characterized by humble beginnings. Accelerated wealth creation for Chinese individuals and families only began to take off into the mid 80′s as Export industries, Real Estate, and Raw Materials started benefiting private owners. Therefore, the entire “Little Emperor” experience — getting whatever the child materially wanted — is not present for this first group of One-Childers.
Its now 2009, and those born after 1986 are starting to enter the workforce. This group is fully set in the single-child environment, and the term “Little Emperors” was really invented to describe the generation starting with this group.
Now that my generational group has gained enough experience and are in managerial positions hiring entry-level staff, my peers and I often share stories about the characteristics and quality of this group of new hires. There are several rising themes often attributed to this new group of One-Childers: 1) they have serious problems with authority figures 2) they have a general disillusionment with responsibility & reality 3) they lack passion/drive to stand out 4) they have problems with group collaboration/communication 5) they are incapable of identifying fault/areas for improvement within themselves.
These five characteristics are broad generalizations that may not apply to each individual, but for those who have experience working with or managing One-Childers born after 1986, I would guess that a large majority of these themes are apparent. And these five characteristics are direct products of the Little Emperor syndrome.
The major issue is, how do you deal with such characteristics? This group is just the head of a long generation of One-Childers with the same qualities, perhaps even exacerbated. There is little to mitigate from this situation. Pretty soon a large portion of all China’s companies will be staffed by this generation. In a few years, this group will move into managerial positions and begin reformatting team structures and work-flow based on their own preferences, likely influenced in part by these five themes. The question is, how will China’s emergent work-dynamic look like? Will this transformation in China’s organizational behaviour be efficient? effective? offer competitive advantages or blunt China’s edge?
A brief, brief word about marriages in China. If there was an industry to invest in right now, it would be the ancillary businesses related to weddings. The “Four-Two-One” factor magnifies the significance and value potential of this still-growing industry. As the first group of One-Childers enter their late twenties, marriage season has begun, or should I say, the marriage competition has begun.
Three entire generations of two families now arrive at the apex of their chance to show off their new-found wealth and success. Forget the big screen TV, the new apartment, or luxury sedan. The Wedding of two One-Childers will make those shows of wealth look like chum-change. (Actually, the wedding will probably include all those things just mentioned). And one relative’s only-child wedding will be compared to another relative’s. One former classmate to another’s. One work colleague to another’s. And lets not forget what a Little Emperor wants, he/she gets. Its a vicious cycle, but I guess a good one for those in the business of weddings. Its 2009. There is at least 30 more years of One-Child Policy weddings. Damn.
Back to China’s One-Child workforce. What’s the Upside?
Is there a saving grace? I hope so. The only one I can think of so far is technology and new media. They are the X-factors in this whole equation. Perhaps the characteristics we currently see as major faults in the One-Childers can become advantages in new utilization of technology & media. Can the One-Childer’s teach us a thing or two about using technology for collaboration? Remember, this is the first real generation of Chinese that grew up with PCs, the internet, the mobile phone, first in an entertainment context before they became work tools.
So maybe we’re on the brink of a Chinese-style collaborative revolution instead of implosion.
Here’s a Video Resume a new Chinese graduate just uploaded onto the web. He’s trying to enter the workforce for the first time, and he’s using the tools he has around him; namely technology and media:
Pretty cool huh? Maybe this is the beginning of something. I’ll leave you with that. I’d love to hear your comments on this subject. Its definitely a work in progress.