Career Advice HR Focus

Exclusive insights: Bridging the generation gap and managing mid-life career crisis

Stressing the fun factor


People might think that the HR department at MTR Corporation has an easy job with the company’s turnover rate of less than 5 per cent. But Morris Cheung, the transport giant’s HR director-designate, said it requires constant innovation and creativity to keep the MTR’s most important wheel – its people – rolling.

“We have very experienced staff who have been with us for a long time. Many are baby boomers who are committed to, and are in love with, their job. That’s good news for us because it provides us with a very stable workforce,” said Cheung.

Yet he noted the steadily growing number of younger staff at MTR. “We’re seeing more people from Gen Y and Gen Z, even in managerial grades. This imposes quite a different characteristic on the workforce that we believe we can make use of,” Cheung said.

He showed a video of a fashion show featuring MTR employees in uniform. The next video displayed employees in superhero and character costumes, while another was about a “crazy orchestra” of staff playing non-traditional musical instruments.

“The point I’d like to bring up is that once you give a project to young people, they will come up with ideas that are beyond imagination. They can be very creative in bringing up new things, like in the videos. These leave our staff with pleasant memories, and have a great impact on them,” Cheung said.

“Of course, equally important is the fun they had during this process. You can see how they really enjoyed wearing costumes and being on the catwalk. We all enjoy being movie stars in our innovative videos and fashion shows. These make work more entertaining, pleasurable, amusing, enjoyable and playful. This is true not only for Gen Y but also for baby boomers and older people in the company,” Cheung added.

Other videos presented a more social message. “Internally we have been producing these videos about people making a difference so that our people will know more of what we are doing. I believe it is important to engage staff from all generations. Gen Y people will also feel that the kind of family we have is very humane and not just focused on work,” Cheung said.

Cheung is proud to say that employees appreciate his organisation’s unorthodox initiatives. “When we try to engage Gen X, Y, and Z, we also have to engage the senior people. It is not simply just making a speech. We want to train people to be more innovative. We think of different methods to engage them to make learning more experiential,” he said.

Flexi-working holds the key


Discussing flexible strategies to engage older talents in the workplace, Professor Randy Chiu, director of the Centre for HR Strategy and Development at Hong Kong Baptist University, posed the question: “People aged 55 years and above who are willing to work – can they really work? Can they perform?”

Citing population data, Chiu pointed out that while the percentage of people aged 55 and above in Hong Kong is growing, the proportion of those in the workforce is at a standstill. This indicates that many of those getting older are leaving their jobs – either retiring or being laid off. 

As an open economy, Hong Kong relies on human capital – its only real natural resource – for its competitive edge. Statistics show that by 2020, every six members of the working population will be taking care of 4.5 dependents. By 2050, the ratio will worsen to 5.5 for every 7.5 dependents.

“This is really going to hurt our competitiveness,” Chiu warned. “But we don’t feel the pain until we begin to lose experienced executives, sales and marketing people, engineers, and people with wide business networks.”

Chiu mentioned research studies debunking misconceptions about older workers. “Do they want to be trained? Yes. Do they have a lot of experience? Yes. Are they creative, in general? Yes. Are they too cautious? No, they also want to try new things. Are they productive? Yes. Are they more reliable than the younger generation? Yes. Are they interested in technological change? Yes.”

Chiu urged HR professionals to be creative and flexible. “Flexi hours and a compressed work week – 3½ or four days a week, or working at home – give people a better work-life balance,” he said, urging phased retirement. “Gradually reduce the workload to 75 per cent, then 60 or 50 per cent, until [the staff] fade out to retirement.” 

Get engaged with Gen Y


“We don’t understand what young employees are talking about. Their behaviour is different from our generation. That is why we created this survey,” said Virginia Choi, managing consultant and country manager at Tamty McGill Consultants International.

Choi was referring to a survey of 1,124 respondents from different professions, more than half of them Gen Y, to help employers understand Gen Y characteristics and preferences and develop strategies to tap them. Respondents included employers, university graduates, and non-working Gen Y’ers with or without university degrees.

The study tackled Gen Y’s reasons for choosing and staying in a job. From the employers’ viewpoint, the main reason was monetary compensation and benefits, followed by interests and fun. But “in fact, Gen Y is looking for money and a clear career path,” Choi said.

Employers assumed Gen Y preferred collaborative mentoring, giving them freedom in their work. But the highest number of Gen Y staff prefer supportive mentoring, with the mentor offering help when needed.

Employers and Gen Y were in agreement as to the latter’s main motivation: money and recognition, and job satisfaction. Asked for words that best described Gen Y staff, employers cited “creative” and “energetic”, while the surveyed Gen Y staff construed themselves as “creative” but “self-centred”.

Choi offered tips on recruiting and retaining Gen Y talents. “Number one: career prospects. You have to make it clear on your website or during orientation. Let them know about what will be next. Number two: partnership. In lots of projects, you engage them, get their ideas, they take ownership. You have to openly recognise them for what they do well.”

Choi also advised involving CEOs during recruitment and providing new hires with mentors of the same age or two years older. “Coach them, and then share your values,” she said.

Turning crisis to opportunity


“Mid-life is a time of dangers for some, but it can also be a time for opportunities,” said Barry Ip, head of human capital development at the Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC), where over 55 per cent of staff are aged 40 to 60, based on his estimate. It’s to be expected, with HKJC being one of Hong Kong’s oldest organisations and largest employers, with more than 5,000 full-time and 20,000 part-time staff on its payroll.

“The ageing process is normal,” Ip said. “We all go through that process. Basically our brain and body are able to cope with changes while going through the ageing process. Unfortunately, our environment is more complicated that it used to be. We experience far more stress factors [today] than in the old days.”

A mid-life crisis may be trigged by a number of factors. Work stress, spousal trouble, maturation of children, parents’ death or health problems, ageing – any of these can send a mid-life employee into crisis mode that, in turn, reflects in his job performance.

Employees’ behaviour and productivity depends on how they normally cope with stress. The “miserables” deliver minimum effort. The “marginals” complain excessively but stay in the job to ensure a steady income. “Movers” are solid performers who always hit, but are unwilling to exceed, their targets. Lastly, “motivators” respond positively to stress and are willing to serve as both role models and mentors.

To ensure more “motivators”, the HKJC invests heavily to make work-life balance part of company culture. It allocates 40,000 sq ft to gyms, libraries and canteens. Its canteens serve HK$22 lunches of two dishes, soup, rice and dessert. Employees are encouraged to pursue other interests during leisure time, such as yoga, social networking and sport.
The HKJC College is the first non-tertiary institution and non-professional association accredited to run programmes to associate-degree level. HKJC employees are also routinely involved in other projects to avoid boredom with their job. “Give them a different exposure, to experience something new, and learn new things. That is how we are able to keep our staff energised,” Ip said.