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What Gen Ys want and why

Published on Friday, 05 Aug 2011
Illustration: Bay Leung

The boss prefers a phone call; the new hire sends him a text message. The boss tells the new hire what to do; the new hire knows better. The boss communicates occasionally; the new hire wants immediate feedback. The generational gap, a perennial dance between parents and their children, is straining the seams of workplaces in Hong Kong and China, sending organisations scrambling to understand the perplexing new workers entering the workforce.

Born between 1980 and 1995, Gen Ys - also known as the Post-'80s generation - tend to be strong-minded. They were born amid a technological revolution and raised in smaller, busier, dual-income families or by single parents. They're well- travelled, so their work aspirations differ from their predecessors who had to face cram schools to accumulate knowledge.

On the mainland, workplace generational gaps are even more acute. Its Gen Ys were born during a period of Chinese market reforms that changed the face of employment. Even their parents and grandparents who had got used to employer-controlled career management had to change tack and take ownership of their careers. Unlike their hardworking Confucian parents, members of the Post-'80s generation are used to thinking for themselves and have grown up in a more modern and open China. Many of these Gen Y employees have had foreign education and exposure. They have access to the internet and digital technology. Furthermore, China's Gen Ys tend to be products of the one-child policy and are therefore somewhat spoilt.

"With up to four or five generations in the workplace, you can imagine the generational problems," says Virginia Choi, Hong Kong head of management consultancy Tamty McGill. "One says he values hard work, the other that he values happiness. Where do they strike a common ground? But you have to learn how to work with [the Gen Ys] because they are our future leaders. Soon, the senior management tiers will be retiring and they will be moving in."

She identifies five generations - those born in 1922-1945, 1946-1964, 1965-1980, 1981-1994 and post-1995. "We have seen an increase in the demand for multigenerational training programmes on the mainland in recent years," says Choi. "Employees of different generations are trying to learn how to work seamlessly without allowing their differences to hurt business."

A study last year by American research firm Steelcase 360 on Gen Y in China and India found that although China's Gen Ys are more group- and family-oriented than their Western counterparts, they like to assert their individuality. Their supervisors, who are more traditional and tend to defer to authority, find this new outspoken breed hard to handle.

Tamty McGill recently surveyed 198 employers from 108 companies across 10 sectors and 190 Gen Ys - comprising working graduates, unemployed graduates and unemployed Gen Ys studying non-degree courses in Hong Kong and China between January 2010 and March 2011. The study detected a mismatch between employers' perceptions of their Gen Y employees and how Gen Ys perceived themselves.

When asked for their views on what would motivate Gen Ys to improve their work performance, 44 per cent of employers said money and title would be a motivator, while only 39 per cent of graduate Gen Ys who were employed and 35 per cent of the jobless agreed. Also, 34 per cent of employed Gen Ys and 35 per cent of the unemployed named good job performance as a reason to work even better, against 15 per cent of employers who thought so. All three groups gave almost similar rating to meaningful work, with 25 per cent of both employers and working Gen Ys and 22 per cent of the unemployed giving it the thumbs up.

Money, therefore, is not the only carrot. Job satisfaction, learning opportunities and different work exposure are also effective ways to motivate Gen Ys. Since Gen Y employees are just starting, they want more support and guidance from employers, says Choi.

Mainland movers

A 2010 study identified six major shifts Gen Y members have set off in Chinese workplaces 

Harmony to identity

While conforming, the young workers express their identities

Teamwork to collaboration

From department-based to project-based, with pooling of ideas

Job security to growth

Continuous learning is a priority

Supporting the work to supporting the worker

Work is now incorporating some social life

Worker to explorer

The young workers move jobs as they develop their career paths

Work and life to working and living

Work hard, live hard is replacing work hard and go home 

Source: Steelcase 360

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