Asia Tomorrow

Asian Millennials will rule, if they temper their ambition

Alexis Xydias | Special to
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Asian Millennials have loftier career ambitions than their global counterparts, and they're more willing to leave home for work than their predecessors. So they're all set for success, right?

Sure thing, employment experts say, if only they can temper some that very desire to climb the corporate ladder.

Ina January poll byDeloitte, 65 percent of Asian employees born after 1982 respondedthat they aimed to become the highest-ranked person at theircurrent firm, compared to 45 percent of North Americans and 37percent of Western Europeans of the same age whogave the same answer.

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Those ambitions are also reflected in employment turnover, with Chinese and Indians now more likely to swap jobs than other nationalities, according to anecdotes from human-resources directors.

"What the millennials are saying is 'we want a big sense of responsibility and we want ownership in what we do, we want the recognition'," said Kit Foong, a Singapore-based director at Universum, which helps companies brand themselves to prospective hires.

"They want a bit more of a fast-track career relative to the generations prior."

Asians are currently under-represented on the boards of the largest companies in the U.S. In a 2012 Fortune 500 ranking of top U.S. businesses, only 2.2 percent had a chief executive officer of Asian-Pacific extraction, according to Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, a U.S.-based advocacy group. That compares with an Asian population that makes up 6 percent of the total in the U.S. Three years later, PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi and Microsoft's Satya Nadella are among the few high-profile Asian bosses in the U.S.

And globally there is a shortfall in the number of Asians at the helm of corporations, even though six of the top 20 economies in the world by gross domestic product are in the Far East.

But there are signs this situation could change with the Millennial generation.

For one, Asian businesses are entering new, non-Asian markets at a greater pace than ever before - giants like Huawei Technologies and Alibaba are just two examples - and the region itself is increasing its share of the world economy. China had 95 companies in Fortune's 2014 Global 500 list, while India had eight. A decade earlier, the same tally was 15 and four respectively.

Also, the generation now hitting the labor market is Asia's most international and connected to date, with a grip of technology and global trends that could put them ahead in a quickly-evolving business environment. With 83 percent of smartphone penetration, Asian Millennials top their counterparts in the U.S., Europe and Latin America.

And they're getting management experience earlier. A survey by Ernst & Young of eight countries published this year pointed to a greater proportion of Millennial-age managers in Asia, relative to peers elsewhere. In India, 85 percent of millennials polled by E&Y said they managed other employees, compared with 39 percent of respondents in the U.S. In China the ratio was 58 percent.

But this surfeit of youthful ambition may need to be tempered if Asians are to achieve their dream of making it to the boardroom, because they risk missing key experiences along the way.

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Securing and keeping skilled managers in China particularly is a problem for international employers, said Jonathan Quioco, a Tokyo-based recruiter at Robert Walters. China's youngest employees, who grew up experiencing an economic boom, are among those with the highest career expectations and greatest job mobility, looking for quick recognition for their work in the form of promotion, Quioco said.

"Asians across the board are very title-driven, there is social pressure to have or to want a higher title," he said. "The biggest problem for companies hiring in China is retention. It's common for employees to receive higher salaries or titles from the competition. Typically their employers counter-offer."

This focus on prestige titles may backfire, warns Peter Udall, a director at MSA Learning in Hong Kong, as it can lower workers' chances of personal development and being attached to interesting projects.

"If you are moving from job to job to get a title, you don't develop the skills," said Udall, a recruiter and adviser to companies on staff development. "It's not a strategic move but a tactical one. These people end up being stagnant."

Even with these risks though, Vinika Rao, a director at the INSEAD Emerging Markets Institute, a think tank in Singapore, believes the latest generation of Asia workers are destined for success.

"Asian Millennials are well educated, but are also more comfortable with the diverse workforce that they will have to deal with as managers than were previous generations," she said. "We will see more leaders coming out of Asia.