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Business Insight

Young Chinese workers aren't like their elders

Employers challenged to meet demands for more responsibility -- and more fun

Chinese millennials are willing to spend long hours in the office, but like to mix work with fun.   © Reuters

Lunar New Year celebrations have become a big part of Chinese corporate culture over the past decade. But the celebrations this year at New York-listed tutorial center operator New Oriental Education & Technology Group were a little different.

A video clip of the festivities leaked to Chinese social media showed six millennial staff pointedly questioning the company's culture with the lyrics of a song they performed on stage for thousands of colleagues, including top management.

"Why do PowerPoint slides get more credit than good execution?" read a line flashed on the large screen behind the performers. "Why do people get promoted for pleasing the boss rather than taking care of our customers?"

Outspoken young Chinese employees are no longer rare. The 400 million Chinese born between 1982 and 1998 are more entrepreneurial, global, and independent-minded than their elders. To work with these Chinese staff who will lead the country's companies into the future, you will need to know who they are and the journey they have come through.

As Chinese media delved into the background of the New Oriental event, it turned out Yu Minhong, the company's founder and chairman, had approved the making of the video, tasking the young rebels with embarrassing senior management to force change.

"A storm is coming at New Oriental," commentators on social media concluded. "Uncle Yu is a master at empowering the younger generation to push for change."

Along with New Oriental co-founders Bob Xu Xiaoping and Victor Wang Qiang, Yu has been an inspiration for millennials as an epitome of entrepreneurship. Starting off in an abandoned factory in the 1990s, New Oriental was the first Chinese education company to go public in the U.S.

In 2011, the three co-founders called upon overseas Chinese students to return to their homeland to build startups. Later that year, Xu and Wang founded ZhenFund, which has since become one of China's most successful early-stage venture capital firms and has invested billions of dollars into Chinese startups, a majority of which were founded by Chinese millennials.

The story of the three co-founders was chronicled in the 2013 feature film "American Dreams in China." In a memorable scene, one of the co-founders rebukes an older American lawyer who has accused the company of copyright infringement.

"China has changed," he says. "Unfortunately, you are still stuck in the past."

China has indeed changed and many Western companies are still unaware of what the country's younger generation is looking for.

The previous generation had a rough time. War, hunger and poverty drove families from rural to urban China to work and start their own businesses. As their children grew up and joined the workforce, their needs were simple: to make money to feed, house and educate their own families. Their attitude was straightforward: keep your head down and get things done in pursuit of higher pay and upward advancement.

The young urban generation has its basic needs satisfied and is looking for more. MioTech, my two-year-old artificial intelligence-powered data analysis company, is staffed entirely with millennials, the oldest of whom was born in 1983.

Recruitment interviews often end with requests for extra job responsibilities, accelerated career development and a fun company culture, rather than the old standard talk of pay and working hours.

Many overseas criticized Sequoia Capital partner Michael Moritz for his Financial Times column last year in praise of the China tech work ethic of "996" -- 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.

996 was never written into our company policy, but the work hours kept by most staff is not too different because we need to move fast as a startup to keep ourselves alive amid fierce competition. My top performers even come to the office voluntarily on Sundays whenever there are things that need to be done. 996 is less about a schedule and more about responsibility: millennials want responsibility and should be given room to show it.

Millennials hardly need reminding, though, that there is life outside of work. I have taken my team to Mount Everest and our office's band room and arcade machines have become key selling points.

During all-nighters in the office, diligent staff take breaks to drum in the rehearsal room or play a few video games. On team-building trips, I have found employees writing code and work emails while having drinks by the beach and even while at Mount Everest base camp.

Curious what happened to New Oriental's six young critical singers? Chairman Yu awarded each of them 120,000 yuan ($17,270) and publicly pledged to use millennial staff to help get the company back on track.

He is not alone. The whole of China is betting on its millennial generation for global leadership in business and technology. They are the future China you need to work with too.

Jason Tu, MioTech chief executive

Jason Tu is co-founder and chief executive of MioTech, an artificial intelligence platform for financial institutions.

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