As we wind down the celebrations for International Labor Day – when most of the world recognizes workers – and face the prospect of going back to work later in the week, perhaps a few words might be in order about the Chinese workplace. We tend to focus on foreigners in China or issues between foreigners and Chinese in the workplace, but we’ve only tangentially tried to look at the workplace from a Chinese perspective.
Since the Chinese labor force is about 819 million people and I’m not Chinese, it’s safe to say that we’re not going to even scratch the surface in a blog entry of a few hundred words. But a couple of observations:
China has different labor pools and each faces its own challenges. ”Migrants,” the term used for low-skilled low-wage workers from non-coastal provinces who move to the large coastal cities to perform manual labor or work in factories, often have a rough go of it working in dingy or unsafe factories with less than stellar managers. While multinationals may try to improve conditions, success is often mixed. And yet, China’s economic miracle has been built on the backs of such workers.
Office workers may not have it much easier, although the challenges may be quite different. Unhappiness at being away from family and friend support systems and the stress of working in unfamiliar corporate environments sometimes result in tragic consequences.
Rapid economic change has resulted in more “generations.” In the west, we have the Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y, etc., with a new generation coming along every 15 or 20 years. I haven’t seen any scholarly papers to back this up, but all my Chinese friends tell me they absolutely believe it: In the Chinese work world, there’s a “new generation” every five years or so, meaning a 30-year-old can look back at someone who’s 25 and discern noticeable difference in attitudes toward work, diligence in studying for school, and so on.
One time I was out recruiting with some Chinese colleagues. We were interviewing new college grads and my colleagues were in their late 20s, maybe early 30s. Veritable pups. We weren’t finding many qualified candidates and my colleagues were bemoaning the poor work and study habits of “the younger generation.” Multiple student groups have told me the same thing, to say nothing of what one hears when talking to entrepreneurial types in their late 30s/early 40s talking about younger folks. And when talking to parents, who may actually have had to walk miles across mountains and through fields to get to a school – if there even was a school – one gets even stronger opinions.
Having compressed and multiple generations creates issues in the workplace: There’s an experience shortage and younger workers often have no access or contact with anyone who has more knowledge or understanding than they have. Such leadership vacuums can create their own problems, particularly when an economic crunch hits.
But it’s a holiday, the weather is gorgeous, and the flowers are in bloom. If you’re in a part of the world that’s celebrating, enjoy.