The Chinese Millennials

Everything changes, yet in China, it also stays the same.

Much has been written about American Millennials and how best to manage and challenge these young people in the workforce.  I work with Millennials at my client’s offices and with student interns at the Reshoring Institute, so I am familiar with how to manage this up and coming group.

But I was surprised by the comments of a factory manager from Dongguan, China when he talked about the new Millennials in the Pearl River Delta cities. This megalopolis of Shenzhen, Dongguan and Guangzhou is commonly known as the “Factory of the World.”  Here, Chinese workers produce most of the electronics, consumer products, apparel and shoes, toys and other things for global consumers.

We’ve all seen images of thousands of factory workers bent over work tables for long hours every day just to produce the things that we buy.  Some of us have had the privilege to visit Chinese factories and see the hard-working people first hand. But the factory manager I am working with had a lot more to tell me about Chinese Millennials.

“It’s not like it used to be a few years ago,” he said.  “Today we have to be very careful about what we say to these young people or they will just be unhappy and quit.  They don’t want to work overtime anymore and are demanding higher wages.  They have learned to be like American workers. They want to buy the same things that Americans have,” he said.

I am traveling to China next week and I plan to see for myself. In the many times I have visited Chinese factories, it never occurred to me that Chinese Millennials are changing the Chinese workforce in such a dramatic way.

We have heard the stories of changing and increasing wages. The migrant workforce in China’s eastern coastal cities is also changing. Today, young people coming to the factory towns from rural China are less open to the long working hours, constant overtime and poor working conditions. Today’s Chinese Millennials stand apart from their parents and grandparents. They have many new economic opportunities, they are focused on the present, they are interested in more work/life balance, and they have become conspicuous consumers.

The industrial revolution that happened in China over the past 20 years is breathtaking.  Whole cities with millions of people have sprung up where old, sleepy fishing villages used to exist. Skyscrapers, cityscapes and high-end cars are everywhere replacing a mass of bicycles and low-slung buildings in hutong neighborhoods.  Millennials have grown up without the scarcity and hardships their parents endured. They live and work in a vibrant and expanding economy. They recognize their power in the global economy and have been exposed to the world in a way unimaginable by the generations that came before.

Everything changes, yet in China, it also stays the same. Ancient culture and traditions remain.  Millennials value New Year festivals, respect for authority and elders, and above all family. Traditions exist alongside the newly created “Singles Day,” ubiquitous cell phones and on-line dating. It’s a juxtaposition found only in China.