A small investment in guanxi can help you tap young talent in China’s notoriously fickle and rote-educated post-1980s generation; photo by @yakobusan

By Lisa Sun

While many people launch attacks against China’s draconian one-child policy, not many understand its impact on the business environment. With a young urban workforce uniformly composed of single-children, what will this generation mean for the global businesses? Should foreign firms be wary of hiring one of these spoiled little emperors?

The one-child policy began in the 1980s, and with a few exceptions, the majority of Chinese born in this era are only children. As the single flag-bearer of honor (or dishonor), great expectations are placed on these children, and nowhere is this more evident than in the route-and-rigorous education system.

The strict culture of education runs deep. Many Chinese students joke that Confucius is the root of all misery because he invented Keju, China’s first SATs. Since then, Chinese people have been obsessively taking tests and measuring their performance. In cramped modern classrooms of 40 or 50, students today work their way up a ladder of standardized tests from primary school to high school, all while being openly measured against their peers, and judged by their parents: Good grades bring honor and prestige to the family – bad ones bring shame. This high-pressure race to the top makes Chinese students extremely competitive at early age.

The finale of the K-12 system is a rigorous entrance exam: The infamous Gao Kao. Those who pass with flying colors enter top universities, those who don’t enter less prestigious ones and many more get left out in the cold. Nearly 10 million students take the test each year for a limited number of spots in the 100 top-tier, yiben, universities; exam-time suicide is not uncommon.  And unlike the free-wheeling, experimental four years at American universities, scores on this exam also help steer a student’s study course. Popular majors such as economics and finance require higher performance. As a result, many students cautiously apply for schools and majors within their estimated score ranges, under the advice of their parents.

The system makes the average Chinese student entering college extremely competitive and hardworking. It also tends to make them clueless about their passions. They rely heavily on the advice of their parents, and have become addicted to structured courses and textbook answers. It’s hard for them to take initiative and even harder to exercise the free will they enjoy once out of the education system. Qualities such as leadership, entrepreneurial spirit and creativity are not well developed. So in terms of business, these workers will need a lot of direction.

Another concern is the high turnover rate among the new generation of workers. Many HR departments in China have sent memos for workshops that specifically target the turnover rates in this group – they are the notorious post-80s generation, the baling hou. Because they often have comfortable financial support from both parents and grandparents, many of them quit impulsively. They don’t necessarily need the job to pay the rent or stay afloat. This trend has also garnered its own pop-culture label: Kenlao, to live off your parents.

But the sword has another edge. If you have an amazing employer-parent relation, this could also mean great devotion from these young staff, even at uncompetitive wages. And it doesn’t take much to entertain concerned parents, as long as you show interest in their child’s career and show them their children have potential by staying with the firm. Building some kind of relationship with the parent, or even calling them in the event an impulsive quit can be a great way to retain staff.

Of course, this is easier for local employers. Many of them already recruit through their own social connections. A friend’s niece, a neighbor’s daughter, a son’s classmate; entry level recruitment in China is based heavily on guanxi, social relationships. In this case, the employers might already be on good terms with their parents.

For foreign employers, you may want to consider how working for your company gives your employee’s family bragging rights. Are you a powerful fortune 500? Are you a small U.S. company but in the promising high-tech sector? Do you include benefits such as iPhone 5s or work abroad opportunities? A holiday card, a text message or even a family picnic may be the difference between loyal employees who care for your business and a fickle 20-something always looking for a new job.

Lisa is a TV director with the China Business Network and a recipient of the China News Award. She has lived in Shanghai for 13 years.