What's a postcard? Preparing Generation Y for international assignments

Today’s young expats are very different from their predecessors in the way in which they view and engage with the world.

Ahhh, the old days! The year was 1968 and I was preparing for my first year at a local university in my US hometown. It was an exciting, pivotal time for any young person, but my excitement increased, and my life changed, when an invitation came from a family for whom I had worked for years. They were embarking on a three-year corporate assignment to Switzerland and invited me along to continue my role as mother’s helper to their six children! Mr Barney, an automobile executive, was given approximately one month to ready himself and his family for this adventure.
Mobility management? Cultural training? Expatriate preparation? Third Culture Kids? These terms barely existed in those days, but off we went, ready for anything.
Once I had the opportunity to live and ‘work’ in Switzerland, I was hooked on culture and language for life. I became a high-school foreign-language teacher and taught French to adults for business purposes in my spare time.
Fast forward 30 years, and I found myself absorbing everything I could from intercultural pioneers like Hall, Trompenaars, Hofstede and Renwick. I was assigned my first intercultural training, assisting a country-specific expert preparing a US family for their new life in France. It was my exciting task to assist the children in this transition. Through the use of food, activities, music, and discussion, I advised them on, among other things, efforts to keep in touch with their friends and family back in the States. We had a great little book which suggested sending home-made postcards at various intervals to classmates and teachers to keep connected.
 Digital natives
About a month ago, when I recounted that experience to a ten-year-old girl who was prepping for her second expatriation as a TCK (Third Culture Kid), she looked up from her iPad and said, “What’s a postcard?”
It’s no news to anyone from the 1960s that we have surely entered the future and are interacting with people, born
between 1980 and 2000, who view and engage with the world in a very new and unique way. Today, these people, labelled Generation Y or Millennials, have almost everything at their fingertips, and manage it all at lightning speed. They are connected through Skype, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, smartphones and, by the time this article is published, possibly another form of social media with which I will be unfamiliar.
How have these digital natives changed the way we train and counsel them for living and working in a new culture? How are they different from, and how are they the same as, the generations of travellers before them?
No, trainers don’t recommend postcards, or worry about long-distance phone bills any more, and there is certainly less communication-isolation for most expats. Today, we encourage Skype, and suggest that sojourners create a blog or a family website where friends and relatives can follow them in their new culture. Programme content has evolved too, from culture-generic awareness presentations to as many as two or three days of adaptability inventories, personal adjustment strategies, target culture facts, and business role-play. But does one size ever fit all?
 Generation Pu?
Generational differences evolve through social and political change. Not every culture’s Generation Y will have the same needs, characteristics or even the same name, as explained by international HR expert Jacque Vilet. In her article The
Gen Y Workforce: What Causes Differences Around the Globe (TLNT, April 2013), she says, “Beginning in 1983, the first truly post-Soviet generation to enter the workforce under the presidency
of Vladimir Putin was the so-called ‘Generation Pu’ ... Russia’s Gen Y.” The reactions and the attitudes of this group, shaped under Putin’s leadership, nurtured a more nationalistic, decisive workforce.For further information, cCULTURe
Patrick McAloon, an intercultural trainer and senior lecturer in Chinese language and culture at Ohio State University, says, “The Chinese people do not divide generations into Gen X and Gen Y, because the pace of change in China is so fast. They assign generational differences based on the decade of birth and its placement before or after the economic boom and reform.” He observes that members of our subject target age group were born during China’s one-child policy. “They are the precious jewels of their parents and both sets of grandparents, raised to be more self-confident, self-assured, and consequently less group-oriented than their ancestors.”
They are also much less frugal than their parents, who, in keeping with a strong Chinese value based in Confucianism, were famous for saving. Money is available to this younger group for clothes, electronics and dating!
Born in China in the 1990s, Crystal Xia, a Chinese student in the US, adds credence to this observation. “We enjoy the freedom of the internet, communicating with native speakers, and are not as willing to sacrifice all of our time for work and fulfilment of family obligations.” She says coming to English-speaking countries has a dual advantage: language acquisition, and avoidance of extreme competition in Chinese universities. Insights like these are golden to receptive cultural trainers, who are always on the lookout for shifts in cultures, identifying new trends and attitudes.
Similar reversals of old stereotypes are evident in Gen Ys from Brazil and Mexico. Ricardo Nùñez, an intercultural trainer for over 15 years, notes that the Mexicans he prepares for expatriation are much more open to taking risks and making decisions on their own. They do not use the US as the ultimate benchmark, as in the past, when it comes to business and leadership. They want to know more about how Asians and Europeans do business and respond to challenges. Nùñez comments, “Actually, the lesser-known culture is the one Mexicans want to understand, as this is status-driven, and valuable when the corporate traveller returns home and can be considered expert in that culture.” Brazilians, too, share some of these characteristics, plus a drive to be fluent in English, but often have the additional social goal of maintaining the growth of the new economy, a departure from the more elitist view of their predecessors.
 Is there an app for that?
Yes, there are multiple differences in Gen Ys across the globe, but also several commonalities. They see the world, and sometimes the corporation, without boundaries; they seek, and expect, multiple international assignments; and they have a sense of immediacy. Their lifetime, instant access to almost every type of information and knowledge feeds their need for speed. The web abounds with great sites on culture-specific dos and don’ts, as well as expat forums and lessons learned, so our tech-savvy Gen Y trainees often feel more sophisticated and knowledgeable about the target destination than those in the past. Since time is of the essence in their world, they request shortened programmes
and, in mid-programme, respond to interruptions such as emails, texts or phone calls. They are multitaskers! They are also more visual and kinaesthetic learners, says Peter Reilly, of the English Teaching Forum, so static, tightly structured, trainer-dominated programmes do not work.
Mary Alice O’Brien-Mecke, a former expat spouse and parent of a TCK, trains individuals and families from all over the world for both expatriation and repatriation. Her programmes include the important cultural value contrasts, historical, political and economic impacts on culture, as well as daily life details and social and business orientations. She says, “Demand for up-to-date information, creatively presented, from a myriad of perspectives, in an interactive format, in real time, is a tall order, but it can be and is being done. Customisation is the key.”Here are some recommendations from Mary Beauregard and other highly experienced and seasoned Global LT trainers for producing effective, customised expatriate programmes for every generation.
1. Know your audience – Verbal needs assessments completed via Skype or phone are more immediate, detailed, personal, and productive.
2. Employ self-reflection or assessment tools – Expats must learn about their own cultural conditioning and where their strengths and weaknesses lie in order to anticipate appropriate adjustment.
3. Include guest experts – For optimal engagement and learning, a variety of perspectives, styles, and target-country expertise is critical.
4. Put family first – Whether an expat’s family joins him/her on extended assignment or stays behind, the primary focus should be on preparing the family for enhanced communication and redefined roles, identity and relationships.
5. Address repatriation – It is never too early to discuss the return home and assist in formulating a plan.
6. Provide follow-up or coaching – Trainers and trainees can form a strong bond. The opportunity to continue the connection and reinforce skills adds value to the traveller and the corporation.

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