#11 youth
Olga Kisselmann

China’s Post-90 Generation is Making Its Mark

There's been a generation shift in China. Young Chinese in their early twenties and thirties have more consumer desires, more individualistic working attitudes and different gender perceptions than their parents.

Generation gaps aren't unique to China; they exist all over the world. But due to recent Chinese history and the speed of its economic and cultural development, the gap between children and parents and even between young people in their early thirties, and tweens and teens are striking in China.

The post-80s generation refers to people born in the 80s, while the post-90s to those born after 1989. Their Western equivalents are known as generations Y and Z. Often described as selfish and irresponsible, China's post-80s and post-90s have several heavy burdens to shoulder: the pressure of the gaokao or college entrance examination, difficulties in finding a good job, and rising prices in the real-estate market. Furthermore, they are their parent's only hope for a successful family future, and will be the sole care providers for their elderly parents in a few decades – and this is a heavy load to bear. Yet despite the burdens facing them in future, these young people hold great say today.

According to the market monitoring company Horizon, there are 140 million people in China who were born after 1990, constituting 11.7% of the entire population. Almost all of China's 29 million college students were born after 1990 and will spend a total of at least 300 billion yuan (USD 47.34 billion) on college per year. Studies have repeatedly shown that urban youth consume or directly influence 50% or more of their family's expenditures. They have a say in family consumption even though they still depend on their parents for money. Nearly one-third said they made decisions about major purchases, including houses and cars, and over 60% of urban post-90s youngsters have their own credit card.

The consumer generation

Having been brought up in relative prosperity, the youngest generation is often seen as wasteful, consumerist and brainwashed by major brands when it comes to their purchasing patterns. In terms of consumption though, the post-90s consider themselves selective and aware. In the same survey, they state that style and design, brand, type, colour, size and price all influence their buying decisions.

Only 13.3% of those surveyed reported that a brand was the first factor they considered when shopping, while 65.2% took both brand and practicality into account when making a purchase. 70% said they considered both quality and price in shopping decisions, while 47.3% viewed the product's style and design as important.

"Post-90s feel it is important to be fashionable and express an individual style."

Post-90s feel it is important to be fashionable and express an individual style. A sizeable 42.4% have shopped online at least once, and those who shopped online spent 193 yuan more each month than those who did not.

Post-90s tend to use the Internet even more than other cohorts, and not just for shopping but also to a great extent for gathering information, reviews and advice. The personal micro blogs of stylish Internet celebrities and online communities are more important than traditional media when it comes to setting trends. At the same time the brands most valued by post-90s are those that communicate with them through surveys, instant giveaways and branded activities which give young customers a chance to showcase themselves with their peers, such as contests where winners are featured in a real-life fashion magazine or additional online activities.

A well-paid job is not enough

The post-90s might be game changers when it comes to the attitude towards work in China. As post-90s enter the labour market, it is becoming apparent that they have a more individualistic attitude toward work. The perception of what is seen as a "good job" has changed. A high salary and status were the major characteristics valued by the post-70s generation. Young Chinese born after 1980 value work-life balance and a respectful environment in the office. The post-90s are even less tolerant of working overtime and more oriented toward meaningful work which matches individual strengths and talents.

"Young Chinese born after 1980 value work-life balance and a respectful environment in the office."

However, while most young Chinese prefer white-collar jobs, the service sector is still not creating enough entry-level jobs for fresh university graduates. While a university education has long been considered a guarantee for a brighter future, the number of well-paid jobs hasn't grown nearly as fast as college enrolment. The number of college graduates multiplied eightfold from 830,000 in 1998 to 6.8 million in 2012. Yet at the same time, China is still in a transition phase of widening the service sector. The largest growth is still in industrial blue-collar sectors like manufacturing, export and construction.

Uneducated workers find jobs more easily and make almost as much money as college graduates. Factory worker salaries have risen 20% a year since 2007. The results of a survey by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2011 showed that the average recent college graduate made about 2,766 yuan per month. Yet the average Chinese industrial worker made 2,049 per month, with the prospect of earning even up to roughly 3,000 yuan.

"Nowadays factories have to fund picnics, talent shows and speed-dating events for single workers."

But for factory workers as well, money alone is no longer enough. They too want better work-life balance. Nowadays factories like east-China-based electronic appliance manufacturer Flextronics have to fund picnics, talent shows and speed-dating events for single workers.

China's migrant workers, who usually start out at age 20, about 6 years earlier than their parents, are quite willing to stay in the cities and build an existence outside of agriculture. It is notable that this preference is not simply a matter of income generating opportunities, but also involves choosing a lifestyle – and an urban lifestyle is preferred to their parent's rural lifestyle.

Changing jobs frequently is very common among both young industrial workers and white-collar office staff. The under 25 are the group least dedicated to their jobs. The loyalty shown by young employees in China to their companies is the lowest in the BRICS group of emerging nations that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa.

Shifting gender rolls

Today, women earn 50% of all household income and at this point there are already more female university graduates than male. Young Chinese are more tolerant of divorce and value mutual love over the practical benefits of marriage.

However, the materialistic side of marriage exploded with the post-80s generation when young brides began taking a paid-off apartment, a new car and a lavish wedding ceremony for granted. The post-90s face a new situation as real estate prices rise exponentially and new property regulations encourage both spouses to contribute to equally to buying property.

Seeking an identity

The post-90s are the first generation born and raised in a vastly consumerist society in which many of the old values of modesty and conformity no longer count. China's young people are identity seekers. They cherish the sense of belonging, but at the same time they want a certain amount of individualistic self-expression.

The concept of 'diaosi' has developed into a decidedly mainstream identity. This word is nearly impossible to translate, though a rather simplistic attempt might be as "loser". The real meaning of diaosi is much more complicated though. In the past a diaosi would have been a young guy, miserable at school and with poor manners, somebody no one wants to be associated with. More recently a diaosi has become someone who leads a rather miserable life with no bright future to come. It is somebody from the countryside with a poorly-paid job, average looking, and seriously lacking in confidence, social skills and romantic luck, and with no access to the magical door-opening 'guanxi', China's notorious personal network of influence.

Among today's youth, a diaosi is someone who sees him or herself without much power to achieve success. But the diaosi isn't ashamed of these failings; he embraces them. And he can laugh about it and in the end still try to go after his dreams. Novels about male or female diaosi, their lives and challenges are very popular among young people. The most admired ones are probably those in which the everyday anti-hero overcomes all the obstacles in the end to achieve his goal.

There are male and female diaosi. Some of them might work in finance, in banking or pursue a master's or doctoral degree at one of the countries' elite universities or even abroad. Today's diaosi is somebody real, not one of the super-rich or otherwise privileged kids often referred to as 'gaofushuai' (tall, rich, and handsome) for men and 'baifumei' (pale, rich, and beautiful) for women. However there are lively discussions as to whether someone who owns an iPhone may call him or herself a diaosi.

While the majority of young Chinese are still looking for an identity and lifestyle in the mainstream, the preference being alternative began emerging with the post-80s generation in China. It continues to rise with the post 90s, even if the number of young people who are really able to step out of the established norms is still quite limited.

Lìnglèi basically means 'another type'. It is comprised of elements such as being 'alternative', 'funky' or 'provocative'. Linglei in China have no political agenda, though they express themselves out in the open and want to resist the 'mainstream' lifestyles.

"There is also praise for their creativity, boldness and openness – still much needed qualities in Chinas booming economy."

Urban middle class linglei might even drop out of school and express themselves through music, literature and art. Some of these school-leavers might become successful computer programmers, clothes designers, musicians and entrepreneurs. However, the linglei phenomenon is viewed with ambiguity. On the one hand there is public criticism of young dropouts, who oppose or even "degrade" cultural manners, while on the other there is also praise for their creativity, boldness and openness – still much needed qualities in Chinas booming economy.

Related Articles

Tell me About Your Life

Where do you meet up with you friends? What do you dream of? How did you fall in love? Students from Bethlehem tell about their lives.

» more

Interview: The Millenial-Generation

Examining the Millenial-Generation: When does adulthood start?

» more