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ChinaFile: Serve the People No More

China's service industries face challenges as a new generation, dubbed the "little emperors," enters the workforce.

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I had a conversation with a frustrated hotelier in China.

“These young people,” she complained, “they have no sense of service, no sense of loyalty.”

She told me that she had sent some of her hotel’s best service people for training outside of China. They all did well, but unfortunately, upon return they all quit.

Frustrated hoteliers are joined by frustrated retailers in China. Similar complaints abound, and service is still hard to find, and even harder to retain.

RELATED STORY: Click Here for Last Week's 'ChinaFile' Column >>

The same frustration in finding people who are actually happy to provide service plagues the retail industry. A local luxury store manager told me that turnover is very high, around 40 percent, and she is constantly training and hiring and training and hiring.

At the root of this human resources problem is the peculiarity of the young Chinese labor force — they are all single children. Since 1976, China has enforced the “one child” family planning policy. So anyone born after 1976 should be an only child; brothers and sisters are an abnormality. These single children are often referred to as the “little emperors” — spoiled by not only their parents, but also their respective grandparents.

Now, these little emperors are the backbone of the Chinese workforce, including service industries such as retail. And what we are witnessing is a major attitude problem toward providing service. As an only child, this generation of Chinese had high aspirations for themselves, and many of these lofty ideas were reinforced by their parents. In some cases, families have to pool together resources to support one child through college. It is a definite disappointment to both family and child that, after graduation, his job requires waiting on other people. Young people with good educations do not want to stay in the industry for more than two years. They believe it is embarrassing for them, and for their families, if they do so.

Another reason why proud young service people are hard to keep in the luxury retail industry is that the customers can be horrible. The nouveau riche have a way of treating store salespeople like slaves, snapping at them, demanding extraordinary treatment, demanding to be treated as VIPs.

Unfortunately, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better. Domestic surveys on youth attitude seem to indicate that children born in the Nineties have an even worse attitude toward work than those born in the Eighties. One survey says this new generation is about to enter the workforce without even feeling a need to support themselves financially. A large number of these youths grew up in a much-improved material environment, probably the best Chinese children have experienced in the past century. Complacency seems to be another problem in addition to bad attitude.

Half a century ago, China was a country in which every citizen wore a pin that had “Serve the People” written in Mao’s calligraphy. Today, not only has the slogan been forsaken, but it seems the country will face a major challenge as the young workforce is simply not eager to work, much less to serve.

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