White Collar Dilemmas: China’s Middle-Aged Careerists Face Crossroads

White Collar Dilemmas: China’s Middle-Aged Careerists Face Crossroads
Jul 12, 2013 Translated by eChinacities.com

Editor’s note: this article was translated and edited from Xinhuanet.com, and looks at two Chinese white collar workers who rode the waves of success when foreign companies first entered China to do business in the eighties. Now middle-aged, the two face dilemmas regarding their careers with the recent Western financial crisis, as well as shifting business environments affecting their work prospects.     

After China opened its doors to the world in the early 1980s, it paved the road for the birth of a new “elite” class of people who were able to study abroad at world famous universities and work in prestigious foreign companies. Smartly dressed, working in fancy office buildings, traveling by plane, staying in five star hotels, and able to speak both Chinese and English fluently—their lives were the stuff of dreams for many of their fellow countrymen. This class of people that emerged after China’s opening up were known colloquially as the “first Chinese white collar workers at foreign companies”. Now middle-aged, many of these types are finding themselves at a difficult crossroad in their lives, especially since many foreign companies are downsizing.

Major cuts have taken place at well-known international industries in recent years. In July 2012, Nokia announced plans to close two China sales centers, while in August of that year, Motorola laid off 4,000 employees. In 2013, HSBC stated that they would cut 30,000 jobs worldwide, and subsequently shutdown their Shanghai insurance business on March 20. In light of this, China’s first breed of white collar workers are now facing a midlife career crisis, with the future looking bleak for many foreign companies across the world. 


Stella – early success in Beijing’s CBD

In 1996, Stella was a university student, and was working as an intern for a design institute belonging to one of China’s ministries. Due to her English-related major, she was put to use as a translator. At that time, despite boasting a few modern buildings and high-grade hotels, Beijing’s CBD area was still coming into its own. “I was so envious of those working for foreign companies. I always saw them go on business trips and partake in international conference call meetings. I was naïve at the time, and told myself I had to join a foreign enterprise in the future!”

At that time, intense competition and tough entrance examinations were yet to come into play when looking for work at a foreign company, and with her English language and tech skills, Stella easily found a job after graduation. The next five years went well for Stella, and with her hardworking attitude and good people skills she soon found herself promoted to the position of Team Leader. At the age of 29, Stella rose to the level of Senior Public Relations Manager, and managed to save enough money to move out of her rented apartment and purchase property outside of Beijing’s Fourth Ring Road.

Economic trouble and shifting office scope meant change

However, with the massive influx of foreign companies in China in the early 21st century, Stella found that no matter how hard she worked, she could only stay in the same position and had little prospect for further promotion. “In a company like mine, nationalities decide how high a position you can have. I found that with the increase of foreigners in the company, I was just an average employee who spoke English with a funny accent. It was very difficult to communicate with and get along with others in the office.” As the financial crisis was looming and the company began to downsize, Stella knew she had to make a choice.

It was then that she used her connections to open a small public relations firm, which was mostly made up of young university graduates. Despite becoming her own boss, Stella had to get used to the changes. Previously, she enjoyed lavish business trips to Ireland, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand where she was put up in five-star hotels. Now, she had to operate on a much more modest budget.   

Richard – hardworking accountant

Richard works for one of the “Big Four” accounting firms—Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, Ernst & Young, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers—and feels a true sense of achievement regarding his work. However, he often feels a strong lack of motivation and is unsure of his future career prospects. Richard and his team of around a dozen employees frequently work through the night, often getting no sleep at all. Working overtime and embarking on business trips is one the typical aspects of working in such an industry. Richard said that for the first 20 years of his life he was all about the pursuit of money, but now, at 40, he often asks himself if there’s any other path he can take.

In 2007, Richard was headhunted for a job as a Financial Manager for a firm in Guangdong. Richard refused the offer, but later found that the company had made a name for itself and had hired a financial head who had also previously worked for one of the “Big Four.” Richard expressed regret at his decision, though it was already too late. The 2008 financial crisis saw many companies including the “Big Four” heavily affected, with all kinds of lawsuits emerging regarding “ambiguity” with the relationship between audit and consulting departments.

Not worried about unemployment

Compared to other 40 to 50 year-old employees who work in foreign companies however, Richard isn’t worried about unemployment. He believes that as long he maintains his managerial position, any potential cuts in the future won’t affect him. “There are so many new companies emerging in China these days that the potential for mergers, acquisitions and other business opportunities are ample.” Unlike Stella’s situation, the concept of nationality defining your position doesn’t exist in the accounting world. In fact, in 2012, the Ministry of Finance declared that top decision-making staff and chairmen employed in the “Big Four” must be of Chinese nationality. 

Richard explained that when the “Big Four” first started operating in China, most of the high-level staff were foreigners, especially ABCs (American-born Chinese) as well as overseas returnees. Later, bosses were often employed from Taiwan or Hong Kong. However nowadays local Chinese occupy around 60% of the managerial positions in these companies. Of course, cases such as Richard’s, where employees of Chinese nationality are able to rise up through the ranks regardless of where they come from, aren’t that common.

A change required?

According to Liu Xingyang, the Editor in Chief of China HR, “With the rapid development of China’s economy we have seen the transformation of many manufacturing industries to creative industries. Not only have foreign companies expanded their presence in China. Chinese companies are also undergoing changes to improve their businesses. This makes it very difficult for some middle-aged white collar workers who are looking to move up in their careers. Many of these types have been working hard for foreign companies for many years and have never thought about slowing down and having a change of scene. Sometimes a change isn’t a bad thing.”  

Source: hb.xinhuanet.com

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Keywords: Chinese white collar workers


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Working with Chinese is very challenging. It is always extremely difficult to get them to do something. There are always resistance and excuses. Training them is also useless as they have no interests in learning new skills whatsoever. They are very calculative and would only do something if they think it would immediately benefit them, like getting an extra money/pay for every single extra tasks you give them. Even if you get them to do it eventually without any extra benefits, they would just do things sloppily. They are also very good in finding ways to gain that extra money like going to unnecessary trips while there are much more other important things to do. I don't know what to say really, but they are by far the most difficult and stubborn people to deal with....not one, not two but most of the employees.

Jul 12, 2013 12:10 Report Abuse