Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya • ISSN 2075-7999
peer-reviewed • open access journal


2018 Vol 11 Issue 59

Tang F. Inter-generational conflicts and approaches to their management among different generations in China

Russian version: Тан Ф. Межпоколенческие конфликты в Китае и подходы к их урегулированию, применяемые представителями разных возрастных когорт

Lomonosov Moscow State University, Moscow, Russia

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The continued globalization and internationalization of erstwhile regional and local markets and workplaces have given rise to issues of intercultural and intergenerational conflict, as the workplace becomes both more generationally and culturally diverse. With the growing financial influence of China on the world stage, there is an understanding that erstwhile approaches to studying intergenerational differences and sources of conflict in Western cultures may need to be modified to better account for how factors like social hierarchy, age dynamics and filial piety interact in non-Western contexts. For countries like China, growing business and trade ties might often lead to workplace conflicts or misunderstandings, as individuals from different generations and cultures interact in diverse contexts. Businesses, meanwhile, do not have enough data to formulate effective policies and training programs to mitigate possible conflicts. The current study sought to address this gap by employing a scenario-based semi-structured questionnaire that incorporated participant-generated bubble dialogues to study the approaches of 73 Chinese professionals from younger and older generational cohorts towards intergenerational conflict management at the workplace. The results indicate that while older Chinese participants prefer to avoid sources of conflict, or approach them in a more confrontational manner, their younger counterparts prefer more active approaches that stress cooperation and are more solutions-based. The findings also suggest that younger respondents are less constrained by age-related hierarchical considerations when faced with potential sources of conflict that involve older individuals.

Keywords: conflict management, intergenerational conflict, generation gap, China, intergenerational interaction, experimental methods



In the West, research on generational interactions and workplace conflict has generally looked at five main groups: the Traditionalists (born between 1922 and 1946), Baby Boomers (1946–1964), Generation X (1964–1980), Generation Y (1980–1995) and, to a much lesser extent, Generation Z (1995 – present) [Bencsik et al., 2016]. In the Chinese context, where interest in the study of generations has been growing of late [Sun, Wang, 2010], experts have approached the concept of generations in several different ways. Some have simply categorized the entire population as belonging either to an older generation or younger generation [Orville, Jorgensen, 1995]. Others have either adopted Western definitions of generational cohorts [Erickson, 2009], or have employed their own terminology, based on specific periods of social change in China, e.g. describing Chinese Baby Boomers as the Consolidation generation and Generation X as the Social Reform generation [Egri, Ralston, 2004]. What is clear is that generational cohorts in the Chinese context can be quite fluid.

In terms of intergenerational dynamics at the workplace, global trends indicate that the Baby Boomer generation has been steadily leaving the workforce, with individuals from Generation X and Y taking its place. These generational changes have often resulted in intergenerational conflict because of different values, life experiences, cultural orientations and expectations [Collins et al., 2009], all of which have often negatively affected corporate plans and company productivity [Sessa et al., 2007; Lyons, Kuron, 2014]. Given how harmful intergenerational conflicts can be, companies are understandably focused on formulating policies and strategies that ensure a productive multigenerational environment [Benson, Brown, 2011]. Most studies on intergenerational conflicts at work, however, have explored Western contexts, and the applicability of such findings to non-Western contexts is questionable due to differences in culture and value systems. Studies on intergenerational conflicts at work in China or other Eastern settings continue to be limited, although interest appears to be growing [Shen, 2017]. Accordingly, there is a need to look at how different generations approach and manage conflict in different geographies in order to achieve a more comprehensive understanding of intergenerational dynamics in the context of globalization.

Literature Review

The term "generation" can refer to an aggregate of people differentiated based on age [Mannheim, 1952]. According to this definition, different generations have different value systems because of different life courses and historical settings, as well as due to significant events in their life that helped to mold their personality [Smith, Nichols, 2015]. Globally, there have been notable changes in the generational makeup of national workforces, which, in turn, has led to more importance being placed on understanding the needs and expectations of these different groups not only as individual components, but also in terms of how they interact with each other. In this regard, what little research exists on China indicates significant potential sources of tension between generations. For example, older Chinese generations appear to be more collectivist in how they approach interactions at the workplace, while younger generations appear to be more individualistic [Ma et al., 2016]. Given these differing attitudes to workplace interactions, and likely conflict, it is normal to expect intergenerational conflicts to arise if this diversity is not properly understood and appropriate steps taken to manage it.

Conflict management styles

The literature review identified four approaches to conflict management that can be considered within an intergenerational contextual framework [Zhang et al., 2005; Lin, 2010; Croucher et al., 2011; Khakimova et al., 2012; Gupta et al., 2016]: the confrontaional, problem-solving, avoiding and accomodating approaches. The competing or confrontational approach can be described as being exceedingly uncooperative, combative, aggressive and, generally, negative. Behavior that can be characterized as confrontational might take the form of rejecting responsibility for one’s mistakes, blaming others, and becoming overly defensive, even aggressively so. The problem-solving approach stresses cooperation and assertiveness in order to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution to a conflict. Such an approach employs empathy and seeks to engage people in order to obtain feedback and find a resolution to the conflict based on terms to which all parties can agree. The accommodating approach is quite similar to the problem-solving approach in that it, too, stresses cooperation and empathy, although there is also an insistence on pacifism, taking full responsibility for one’s actions, apologizing and seeking a peaceful resolution to the conflict. The avoiding approach stresses downplaying disagreements, lack of response to potential sources of conflict, and passivity.

Intergenerational sources of tension in China

In the Chinese context, the concepts of filial piety, harmony and social hierarchy have normally tended to institutionalize the power that older generations have over younger generations, leading to certain expectations of a respect for age-based hierarchy with regard to intergenerational interactions [Zhang et al., 2005]. Sources of conflict generally arise when older generations perceive younger generations as having violated these norms or for being irresponsible, at which point older individuals might openly criticize young people for their perceived infractions [Zhang, Hummert, 2001]. Older generations might perceive their criticism as representing "bitter medicine that cures a bad disease" [Zhang et al., 2005, p. 72]. Against this expectation, there are studies that suggest that younger generations in China are seeking a more equal, egalitarian position vis-a-vis their older counterparts with regard to intergenerational interaction, one that stresses their more individualistic personalities and aspirations [Ng et al., 1997; Zhang et al., 2005; Sun, Wang, 2010; Ma et al., 2016]. These studies are valuable in that they not only suggest that significant cultural changes are taking place in China, but that there might be looming conflicts between younger and older generations, as the expectations of these two cohorts diverge and clash. These studies also indicate that older generations would likely expect younger generations to adopt an avoiding or accommodating approach to conflict management given their lower status in the social hierarchy, while a problem-solving approach, which is more popular in the West [Zhang et al., 2005], would constitute a threat to the older generation’s concept of face and hierarchy, and likely invite aggression.

Research Question

Having identified the gaps in information during the literature review, it was decided that the following question would form the basis for the study:

How do you younger and older generations in China approach sources of potential conflict at the workplace? How do they differ?

Methods and Instruments

As part of the study, six intergenerational conflict scenarios, in the form of a semi-structured questionnaire, were created for Chinese participants involving younger / older co-worker pairs in a corporate setting. The questionnaire was derived from the ‘intergenerational conflict’ methodology used by Zhang in his study "Initiating factors of Chinese intergenerational conflict: Young adults' written accounts" [Zhang, 2004]. Developed based on responses to questions about daily interactions at the workplace that were received from a focus group of Chinese respondents currently living in Moscow, the scenarios were presented in Chinese and consisted of situations where younger and older employees are faced with commonly encountered potential sources of conflict, e.g. old > young or young > old employee criticism and rebuff scenarios. The study invited participants to create their own dialogue for each scenario in the form of conversation bubbles and report on the emotions felt by the old / young co-worker pair, i.e. each scenario consisted of two tasks. There were no restrictions placed on the length of each dialogue created by participants. The questionnaire also collected data on participants’ ages, years of work experience and work background. In terms of participant profile, the study targeted two age groups, (20–35) and (50–65), for research. The reasons for designing the two groups in this manner were several: firstly, generational cohorts in China do not necessarily accurately match their counterparts from the West [Hung et al., 2007; Gu et al., 2010]. Secondly, the current format has precedence since similar age group formats have been used previously [Zhang, Hummert, 2001]. If applying purely Western concepts of generational cohorts, the age groups in this study can be considered to represent Generation Z and Y (20–35) on the one hand, and Generation X and the Baby Boomers (50–65) on the other. The study was piloted with four potential participants from two companies in Moscow. Oral feedback provided by the participants from the pilot study confirmed that the situations were practical and engaging. The final questionnaire was sent in the form of an email containing a link to the relevant administrative departments of several companies in Moscow and Beijing. Regarding the list of Moscow companies, help was sought and obtained from the Chinese embassy in Moscow. The email to the companies explained the scope and objectives of the study, and asked the companies to forward the email to relevant staff.


The study used cluster and snowball sampling methods for the purposes of inviting individuals to participate in the research. In total, 73 Chinese professionals completed the questionnaire. In terms of gender, the ratios were mostly even (37 female and 36 male participants). The age break down was as follows: 20–35 age group (19 female and 18 male), 50–65 age group (18 female and 18 male). 64 participants (33 female and 31 male) reported having a university education, with six (three of each gender) having vocational degrees, and three (one female and two males) possessing a school leaving certificate. 37 participants (18 female and 19 male) reported having over five years of work experience, 20 (12 female and 8 male) reported between 1–5 years, with the rest reporting less than a year of work experience.

Data Analysis

In terms of analysis, dialogue responses were analyzed, coded and categorized based on conflict management styles and emotional responses using Atlas.ti software. For example, responses that reflected the competing approach might include dialogue where the older employee reacts confrontationally towards the younger employee, refusing to take responsibility for the situation, and where the expressed emotion was "anger" or "frustration". In order to ensure the accuracy of the coding, the data also underwent coding by an independent rater who was informed about the nature of the instrument and was familiar with the different approaches to conflict management. Cohen’s kappa value was found to be .89, which showed that there was strong agreement in terms of interrater reliability during the coding process. Following the coding process, the four approaches were grouped according to a scale format going from least cooperative to most cooperative, i.e. confrontational, avoiding, accommodating, and problem-solving. This grouping was then used to test for statistically significant generational differences, with the help of SPSS software, in conflict management approaches. The study used the Mann-Whitney test to check for statistical significance, as well as Hedge’s g for the purposes of calculating effect size. An alpha level of p = .05 was used for all tests. When reporting Hedge’s g, the study uses Cohen’s (1969) suggestions: 0.2 is a small effect size, 0.5 is a medium effect size, and 0.8 is a large effect size [Orwin, 1983].


Table 1 shows participants’ coded responses to Scenario 1 (An older employee saw a younger employee making a serious mistake). The data indicates that older Chinese expect a more confrontational approach from the older employee. The younger participants appear to expect the older employee to be more accommodating towards the mistakes of the younger employee. Regarding the behavior of the younger employee, the majority of participants, regardless of generational cohort, appear to show a preference for a mostly accommodating approach.

Table 1
Participant responses to Scenario 1

Participants How does the older employee react? How does the younger employee react?
N Mean SD Median N Mean SD Median
Older Chinese 36 1.58 1.13 1.00 36 2.67 .79 3.00
Younger Chinese 34 3.21 1.34 4.00 34 2.82 .90 3.00

Notes. 1 = Confrontational; 2 = Avoiding; 3 = Accommodating; 4 = Problem-solving.

Mann-Whitney test results indicated that there was a statistically significant difference between the two groups in terms of how they expected the older employee to react (U = 260.5, p < .001, g = 1.319, r = 0.554).

Table 2 shows participants’ coded responses to Scenario 2 (A younger employee saw an older employee making a serious mistake). Here the data again reveals that older Chinese respondents expected the older employee to react somewhat more confrontationally, while younger Chinese clearly lean more towards an accommodating approach regarding the older employee. There is also a stark difference between older and younger Chinese participants with regard to the younger employee, with older Chinese expecting the younger employee to adopt a more avoiding approach when confronted with such a situation.

Table 2
Participant responses to Scenario 2

Participants How does the older employee react? How does the younger employee react?
N Mean SD Median N Mean SD Median
Older Chinese 35 1.86 .91 2 35 2.03 1.07 2
Younger Chinese 29 2.55 1.12 3 29 3.38 1.01 4

Notes. 1 = Confrontational; 2 = Avoiding; 3 = Accommodating; 4 = Problem-solving.

Mann-Whitney test results indicated that there was a statistically significant difference between the two groups in terms of how they expected the older employee (U = 329, p = .010, g = 0.675, r = 0.320) and younger employee to act (U = 177.5, p < .001, g = 1.278, r = 0.544).

Table 3 shows participants’ coded responses to Scenario 3 (An older employee discovered that a younger employee did something that contradicted company policy). Younger Chinese participants expect the older employee to adopt an accommodating approach, while older Chinese prefer a much more confrontational approach. A similar trend is visible with regard to the younger employee’s reaction.

Table 3
Participant responses to Scenario 3

Participants How does the older employee react? How does the younger employee react?
N Mean SD Median N Mean SD Median
Older Chinese 35 1.60 1.22 1 35 1.66 1.08 1
Younger Chinese 30 3.40 1.22 4 30 2.67 1.15 3

Notes. 1 = Confrontational; 2 = Avoiding; 3 = Accommodating; 4 = Problem-solving.

Mann-Whitney test results indicated that there was a statistically significant difference between the two groups in terms of how they expected the older employee (U = 210, p < .001, g = 1.469, r = 0.597) and younger employee to act (U = 291, p = .001, g = 0.897, r = 0.412).

Table 4 shows participants’ coded responses to Scenario 4 (A younger employee discovered that an older employee did something that contradicted company policy). The data shows that older participants expected the older employee to react more confrontationally than did younger participants. Younger participants, meanwhile, appeared to favor an avoiding approach.

Table 4
Participant responses to Scenario 4

Participants How does the older employee react? How does the younger employee react?
N Mean SD Median N Mean SD Median
Older Chinese 35 1.54 .98 1 35 2.49 1.44 2
Younger Chinese 30 2.53 1.20 2 30 3.13 1.25 4

Notes. 1 = Confrontational; 2 = Avoiding; 3 = Accommodating; 4 = Problem-solving.

Mann-Whitney test results indicated that there was a statistically significant difference between the two groups in terms of how they expected the older employee (U = 278.5, p < .001, g = 0.900, r = 0.412) to react.

Table 5 shows the coded responses of participants to Scenario 5 (A younger employee is having difficulties dealing with an issue at work and requires assistance from an older employee). The data shows that both young and old participants expected the older employee to adopt a problem-solving approach to the situation, with the younger employee expected to react in a similarly active problem-solving manner. Statistical tests did not reveal any significant differences between the two age groups.

Table 5
Participant responses to Scenario 5

Participants How does the older employee react? How does the younger employee react?
N Mean SD Median N Mean SD Median
Older Chinese 33 3.52 1.06 4 33 3.97 .17 4
Younger Chinese 31 3.48 1.09 4 31 3.90 .30 4

Notes. 1 = Confrontational; 2 = Avoiding; 3 = Accommodating; 4 = Problem-solving.

Table 6 shows participants’ coded responses for Scenario 6 (An older employee is having difficulties dealing with an issue at work and requires assistance from a younger employee). As can be seen from the data, older Chinese expect the older employee to adopt an approach somewhere between accommodating and avoiding, while younger respondents expect a much more active problem-solving approach. With regard to the younger employee, both generational cohorts expect an active problem-solving approach.

Table 6
Participant responses to Scenario 6

Participants How does the older employee react? How does the younger employee react?
N Mean SD Median N Mean SD Median
Older Chinese 35 2.89 1.13 2 35 3.26 1.17 4
Younger Chinese 32 3.50 .98 4 32 3.56 .95 4

Notes. 1 = Confrontational; 2 = Avoiding; 3 = Accommodating; 4 = Problem-solving.

Mann-Whitney test results indicated that there was a statistically significant difference between the two groups in terms of how they expected the older employee (U = 402, p = .020, g = 0.568, r = 0.277) to react.

Discussion and Conclusion

The different situations helped shed light on how each generational cohort approached intergenerational interactions at the workplace. The results of the study identified some key patterns that surfaced throughout the questionnaire. Firstly, the findings suggest that older Chinese often lean towards avoiding intergenerational conflict at work, or approach it more confrontationally than younger Chinese. For example, it is clear that when the younger employee is at fault, younger participants would like the older employee to help the younger employee overcome the situation, albeit gently (see Table 1 and 3). The accommodating approach seeks to resolve the conflict, yet it is also less interventionist, suggesting that younger participants might look to the older employee to take into consideration the younger employee’s emotional state when handling the issue. The results largely resemble those found in other studies on Generation Y and Z, where there is an expectation of almost parental care and attention from older, often more senior, employees [Hershatter, Epstein, 2010]. Older participants’ responses, on the other hand, suggest a preference to either avoid conflict or react aggressively. In terms of how they perceived the older employee’s reactions to mistakes made by the younger employee, older participants’ preference for a more confrontational approach might be due to their belief that such an approach provides the ‘bitter medicine’ that will cure the younger employee’s irresponsibility [Zhang et al., 2005].

The differences between older and younger generations become quite stark in scenarios where the older employee is shown in a compromised situation vis-a-vis the younger employee. In this regard, younger Chinese participants were much more likely to adopt an accommodating or problem-solving approach, while older Chinese participants appeared to gravitate, on average, towards an avoiding approach or even confrontational approach (see Tables 2 and 4). This perhaps indicates that older participants believe in and tend to reinforce concepts of filial piety and age-based hierarchy much more so than younger participants, who tend to view younger and older employees on a more equal footing. These findings are corroborated by several other studies where it was found that younger generations strive for greater equality of status with older generations, and that they tend to reject the notion of a hierarchy purely founded on an old-young dichotomy [Zhang, 2004; Wang, 2006].

In concluding, the results of the study show there are significant differences between older and younger Chinese individuals, often with a large effect size, suggesting that the possibilities of workplace conflicts are significant in companies with intergenerational workforces that employ older and younger Chinese workers. These companies will likely need to implement some degree of cultural sensitivity training or workshops that could mitigate the possibility of workplace conflicts. It is hoped that this study will serve as a springboard for further research on intergenerational interactions that involve non-Western settings. Indeed, more qualitative and quantitative research is needed in this regard in order to better gauge the desires, expectations and characteristics of different generations in different geographic contexts as they relate to each other.


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Received 15 May 2018. Date of publication: 28 June 2018.

About author

Tang Fei. Ph.D. Student, Faculty of Psychology, Lomonosov Moscow State University, ul. Mokhovaya, 11–9, 125009 Moscow, Russia.
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Suggested citation

Tang F. Inter-generational conflicts and approaches to their management among different generations in China. Psikhologicheskie Issledovaniya, 2018, Vol. 11, No. 59, p. 7. (in Russian, abstr. in English).

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