Wednesday, May 2, 2012

China’s Silver-Spoon Generation: How does it Impact China and the West?

In China the 90s generation is entering the employment market. During my visit in the last weeks in Hong Kong, in Guangdong Province and in Shanghai I met with many managers from manufacturing companies all complaining about the troubles they have with the generation’s representatives: They leave working places too often for smoking or playing e-games. They try to dodge work as much as possible. If another company offers just a minimally higher wage these employees suddenly change the company. In short, they are said not to be very productive and to lack loyalty vis-√†-vis their employers.

I was quite surprised that exactly this issue was picked out in an article of the English-written Chinese paper “Global Times” when I read it for the first time. The article basically says that the 90s generation is unconventional, innovative, rebellious as well as self-centred. It is flexible and quick in learning. And, it is the first generation in which a really diversified set of values exist: everyone sees herself as different. This stands in strong contrast to the 70s and 80s generation of which each knew a quite homogenous set of values. The 90s generation is the 2nd generation of rich. Because this generation’s elders became rich in the reform era its children have grown up with a silver spoon in mouth.

The silver spoon generation is still quite young. It is most likely too simple to reduce this generation to the actual troubling behaviour in companies. The question is how will this generation behave in some years when it has developed itself further? What implications does such a self-consciousness and value-diversified generation has to China and the rest of the world?

In the West we know e.g. the 68s generation. Although a comparison of China’s 90s generation to the 68s must be treated with caution there are some clear similarities: Both have grown up in economically prosperous surroundings; both are individualistic and differ themselves from the older generations through more open and more diverse values; they are creative and innovative; the older generations are rather negative to the ideas of these new generations.

Ideas of the 68s we may recognise e.g. in the IT industry. The ideal of openness underlying the internet and other computer-technologies is often brought in context with the Hippie or 68s generation. Early IT-cracks indeed often stayed together with Hippies (Steve Jobs e.g. lived for a certain time with Hippies in the USA, travelled to India in search for illumination, and even sometimes took LSD).

Today we know that although the older generations often were negative towards the youth of the 68s this generation had a big societal impact and also created some very successful and innovative entrepreneurs.

It is quite likely that China has the potential to boost its innovative power with its 90s generation. But, it is decisive that this young generation understands to bring in and develop their creative skills constructively in the next years. With these young people it is probably possible for China to leave its learn-by-heart mentality in education. For the rest and the West of the world this means that it has to envisage more innovations from China. The positive thing for the West and the rest is that they can profit of these innovations as consumer or user. But overall it is highly likely that global competition will become harder again. Therefore the West has to hold on the curiosity (at the functioning of the world) which was born once during Enlightenment. In this tradition it has to have the important and necessary courage to ask not only big but also unconventional questions.

Culturally the West is still very innovative and attractive, with a charisma also to other regions, including China. It will be interesting to see what influence the 90s generation will have on the cultural understanding and on political institutions of future China. This is even more difficult to prognosticate than the economic implications.

Claude Meier

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