New China’s New Problems


May 9, 2007

by Marshall Goldsmith

On a recent trip to Shanghai, I had the opportunity to meet several brilliant, newly minted MBA graduates. These youthful stars were part of a study, called “China 2024,” that’s tracking their lives and potentially making a movie about their experiences in the “new China” over a 20-year period.

These were the creme de la creme of future business leaders. While I wasn’t surprised at their intelligence or their amazing work ethic, I learned some important lessons about them as human beings – and the incredible pressure they carry around every day. I also had some insights about the different challenges their children may face.

Although I don’t speak Mandarin, each one of these young, future leaders conversed fluently in English. As is common for professionals in Shanghai, each had adopted an American name. They seemed to do whatever they could to make me feel comfortable. I was struck by how many hours they had invested in learning to communicate with me – and how few hours I had invested in learning how to communicate with them.

Unique Opportunity

As “Nancy” described her life and its many opportunities, she reflected on her parents and grandparents. Like most of her friends, she’s an only child. Her parents lived through the Cultural Revolution. She said her parents greatly valued education, but they lived in Shanghai at a time when it wasn’t acceptable to read foreign books or even act like a highly educated person.

“Twelve years of my parents’ lives were basically lost. They never had the opportunity to graduate from college, get an advanced degree, and become professionals,” she said. “They certainly had the intelligence – they just didn’t have a chance to use their intelligence. This is a sorrow that my parents will have to carry for the rest of their lives.”

All four of Nancy’s grandparents are still alive. She described them as village dwellers in the countryside, and poor by Shanghai standards. “In our culture, we’re taught to respect and care for our parents and our living ancestors,” she told me. “It’s clear that I have been given an opportunity that none of my ancestors have ever had. I’m going to do whatever I can to help the people in my family and to make them proud of me.”

Many Dependents

As I looked at Nancy’s face, I began to see not only her motivation but the expectations and pressures that surround her life. In many ways, she’s the “chosen one.”

She had the brains and the drive to graduate from two of China’s top schools. She’s lucky enough to be alive at a time when China is emerging as a world economic power. She has been given an opportunity that no one in her family has ever been given.

Everyone in the family is counting on one person – her. Her greatest fear is letting them down. Nancy is carrying around a burden that’s hard for most people in the West to imagine.

Indeed, for most Americans it’s impossible to understand the deeper motivations behind the amazing drive of young Chinese professionals. We may have trouble relating to people who are 28 years old, work 80 hours per week, and still live with their parents.

It’s easy to see their drive – it isn’t so easy to observe their fear. Nancy is just as human as everyone else. She gets tired. She would like to have fun and have a great social life. On the other hand, Nancy is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to succeed. She will pay the price.

Nancy isn’t just working for herself. She’s the representative of her family. “Dropping out of the race” isn’t really an option for her.

Her success will make a huge difference in the economic welfare of six important people – her parents and her grandparents. She can give them gifts that can change their lives. Amounts of money that may seem trivial in America can seem monumental in the Chinese countryside.

Brats of the Boom

But there’s something more important than money: Nancy can make her ancestors proud. They can discuss her achievements with friends and family. They can show everyone what she has done with the great opportunities she has been given – and that they never had. Through her, they can see their own achievement.

With Nancy and the young professionals like her driving the economic growth of China, it’s easy to see why so many pundits and magazines are talking about the “Chinese century” and making predictions about the continued economic growth of China. An important learning point throughout history is never make linear predictions from the past to the future. Things change!

China’s first generation of children who are being brought up with money are already showing major problems. They’re called the “little emperors” because of their arrogant, spoiled behavior.

Unlike many of their parents, these children haven’t been deprived of anything. They’re given all the material gifts that their parents couldn’t imagine: nice clothes, expensive toys, and the latest video games. Many of these kids are obese. Instead of feeling a need to give to their parents, they feel they’re entitled to get from their parents!

Generational Conflict? 

Nancy’s child (she will probably be allowed to have only one) will be given everything Nancy wasn’t given, except the one thing that caused Nancy to achieve so much: The hunger and motivation to be the one who finally succeeds for her family.

In many ways, the future of any country is “all about the children.” The fact that this generation may propel China to great success doesn’t necessarily mean that the next generation will do the same thing!

(Author’s note: This column was inspired by a series that I wrote for Talent Management Magazine.)