Keyword search
Tag search
Global Japan
MAY 21, 2019

The Millennial Identity: How East Asian Students at Top Universities See Themselves

By Misato Nagakawa
iStock photo/nadia_bormotova

We all have an identity, a compilation of groups or values we claim allegiance to. It can include a nationality, a religion, an organization, a school, or even the generation in which we were born.

Pew Research Center divides today’s living generations into five groups: the Silent Generation (1928-1945), the Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), Millennials (1981-1996), and Generation Z (1997-). Among these, Millennials tend to command a great deal of research attention, particularly from a U.S.-focused view. They are the largest population in the U.S. labor force, after all.

However, the Millennial impact on other regions should not be discounted. The population of East Asia (China, South Korea, and Japan), according to the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, consists of about 21% of the global population and 23% of the global GDP. Clearly, this region matters. Who are the Millennials of East Asia? What do businesses need to understand about them?

The best way to answer these questions is to go straight to the source. I conducted interviews with seven East Asian Millennials now studying at top schools in the region: the University of Tokyo, Peking University, and Seoul National University. While this small sampling may not represent the whole generation, the students did deliver some helpful insights.

From left to right: Ruoxin (China), Tsubasa (Japan), Hikaru (Japan)

Do East Asians identify as Millennials?

“Millenial” is largely a Western term, so the first question was whether Millenials in East Asia even recognize the word. It turned out that all but one student (from South Korea) have at least heard the term. The Japanese and Chinese interviewees explained that they align their identities with generations in their own countries, but understand that they are technically in the Millennial group.

Lai, a student from China, said, “Sometimes perception is different, but yeah, it is a fact that I was born in the 1990s, so I think I am a Millennial.”

So who are Millennials, exactly? Time magazine once labeled them as the “Me Me Me Generation.” Pew Research Center lists their personality traits as confident, self-expressive, liberal, upbeat, and open to change. The interviewees agreed somewhat, naming Millennials as open-minded, self-centered, individualistic, and strong.

How they came to be that way was a point of some cultural and historic difference.

The Chinese students interviewed seemed to believe that China’s famous one-child policy, which lasted from 1979 to 2015, played a role in developing these characteristics. South Korean students, on the other hand, listed “disrespectful” among Millennial traits, as this is how the elderly see them. “There are big generation gaps between us and the older generation,” says Timothy, a student from South Korea. “They know about the history of democratization, and they think we are not thinking about our country because we only care about our career.” Confucianism also may play a role in this view.

Lai (China)

What are Millennials after in a job?

Now a question that is (or should be) on every company’s mind: where do Millennials find value in work?

Global Research by Manpower Group shows that Millennials see money as the most important out of four other choices: security, holidays/time off, talented coworkers, and flexible work environment. Deloitte’s global research also shows that financial reward is at the top of the list for Millennials considering where to work.

However, when I asked my interviewees to rank money, security, holidays, talented co-workers, and flexible working environment, the results were very different. None of them chose money. Rather, five of them chose co-workers as a key element to the perfect job. Rocky, from South Korea, added his own workplace factor: mission.

“I don’t want my job to be just something to make money,” Ruoxin, from China, agreed.

Tsubasa, from Japan, pointed out, “You can’t really see [how important these things are] until you start to work.”

From left to right: Rocky (South Korea), Coco (China), Timothy (South Korea)

Who do Millennials want to work with?

So what about leaders? What kind of leadership resonates with Millennials?

Deloitte’s global research categorizes the leaders we see in society into four categories, ranked according to positive impact: NGOs and not-for-profit organizations, business leaders, religious/spiritual leaders, and political leaders.

What did our East Asian Millennials think of this? The result here, again, differed a bit from the research.

None of the interviewees chose leaders of NGOS and not-for-profit organizations as having the most positive impact, though Coco from China mentioned that they do “have potential for the future.”

Japanese and Chinese students chose either business or political leaders for the top spot. Tsubasa justified his choice by saying, “Business leaders are comparatively more visible than the others.” Coco touched upon the positive mood toward innovation and start-ups in China.

South Korean students took a different view, again suggesting that the history of democratization has something to do with their choice. Timothy chose religious/faith leaders, mentioning that they did have a positive impact throughout the process of democratization. Rocky chose political leaders for a similar reason.

So what leadership characteristics will these young East Asians seek out in the job market? Suggestions included fairness, good communication skills, respect for the young generation, transparency, and trust. It appears that Millennials in East Asia wish to be treated equally and respectably, regardless of age and experience.

What does the future hold for Millennials and their employers?

Do Millennials have an optimistic view toward their own career? The answers from our students were quite divided. However, when I asked them whether they have an optimistic view toward society, the Korean and Japanese students were pessimistic, especially considering the current developmental stage of their nations. The Chinese students, however, had an optimistic view.

Perhaps Rocky summed it up most succinctly when he explained, “In China, you have a second chance, but in South Korea, we don’t. Once you fail, you fail.”

What can we say from here? The extensive research done on the Millennial generation has unearthed some common characteristics and tendencies, though these clearly don’t speak for everyone. It is no simple matter to understand this generation. There is no label for them that suits every situation. That is to say, their identity is fluid.

Living and working with the Millennial generation will require an open mind. It will require facing the person in front of you as unique. That, perhaps, is what leaders in any region will need to do to make efficient use of this large and crucial part of the global workforce.