There is a big to-do about American millennials. What do we want to buy? What do we stand for? How do we see the world?
But China has around 400 million millennials, five times more than the 80 million we have in the States born between 1982 and 1998 (now ages 20-36). There are more millennials in China than there are people in the United States and Canada combined.
Yet, when the world talks about China, we often focus on the past: old stereotypes, old politics, old traditions and the older generations. A young generation is coming of age in China that has already begun to lead the nation’s powerful economic and political future. They impact and often define every market they enter — affecting the lives of Americans as much as their fellow countrymen. Whether you’re trying to score a job at your local manufacturing plant, get your kids into college, plan a trip anywhere in the world or sell soda, cellphones or solar panels (and we’re only getting started), this young Chinese generation will impact you personally and professionally over the next half-century.
There are four traits that define this young generation that I discovered after graduating from Columbia University and moving to China where I lived for four years working to understand the country’s emergent youth.
First, they’re open-minded. China’s older generation grew up behind a cultural wall. My friend, Xiao Huan, was born in Sichuan province in 1990 — the same year as me. His parents remember how, as kids, the community used to crowd into their neighbors’ broken-down house because they had a 12-month calendar tacked to the mud wall of their house. Those 12 pictures — “Fields of Europe” — were the locals’ only view of the outside world. For most, the West was reduced to a series of drumbeat slogans pumped out by the Communist Party, giving marching orders for the Cultural Revolution. “Surpass Britain and catch up with America!” they were instructed.
China’s young millennials, meanwhile, have grown up observing the outside world. They are digital natives; and 90 percent own a smartphone.
Xiao Huan and his peers have had a decade or so of mandatory English classes and though Chinese Internet is curtailed, he still grew up watching American movies and TV shows, tracking Western fashion and studying Western politics. Many of my friends in China can quote Barney from “How I Met Your Mother” and Martin Luther King Jr.
They aren’t just learning about the world from afar. Young China is literally seeing the world for themselves and sending seismic waves through the global travel industry in the process. Two-thirds of all passport holders in China are under the age of 36. Despite only roughly 6 percent of the population having a passport, China represents the largest outbound travel market in the world, driven in large part by these millennials.
China’s international tourism expenditure was $261 billion in April 2017, compared to the US’s relatively small $122 billion, according to World Tourism UNWTO. As a result, the travel industry must now start catering to China.
Their second defining trait is their rags to riches story. It is ironic, but the world’s largest “communist” nation has driven one of history’s greatest capitalist success stories. My friend’s parents from Guizhou province have told me how, when they were kids, they remember eating tree bark to avoid starvation during China’s Cultural Revolution. For context, that same year, 1969, my parents were each debating whether or not to go to Woodstock. Since I was born in 1990, the US per capita GDP has grown 2¹/₂ times its original size. That’s a substantial jump. In the same time span, Xiao Huan has watched his country’s GDP grow twenty-five-fold. China’s young people have witnessed a vast array of physical, personal changes — from rural to urban, bikes to cars, tenements to high-rises — in their lifetime, and inevitably it has shaped the way they see themselves and the world.
Third, at 400 million strong, young China is still relatively small. How could such a massive cohort be considered tiny? In 1949, when Mao founded the People’s Republic of China, Chinese families were averaging five to six kids per family, and the average life expectancy was 36. China’s demography was shaped like a pyramid with a broad base of young people and a narrow tip of older people. China’s traditional retirement system was their children, which was relatively sustainable with many siblings to help support aging parents. Still, most people didn’t retire; they died.
Today, China’s demographic challenges could undo this young generation’s future. The pyramid is being turned on its head. Increased wealth has translated into extended longevity, and China’s elderly are living to age 76, on average. But China’s one-child policy (introduced in 1979 and phased out in 2015) means that today there are relatively few young people compared with older people, often forming a 4-2-1 family — four grandparents for every two parents and every one child.
China’s economic manufacturing miracle was in large part due to a lot of hands doing a lot of work for cheap. China’s young generation is a cohort of single children.
They will not and cannot make the world’s shirts. Innovation is the key to this young generation pushing China past the middle-income trap — in which a developing country’s growth slows considerably after reaching middle-income levels. The young generation knows it has to become more entrepreneurial to create jobs with more value or they will not be able to support the aging population.
This gritty generation of budding entrepreneurs will be competing with American innovators on the world stage. Some young entrepreneurs — particularly programmers — are already making waves, like the 22-year-old Guo Yingda, who started an Internet company aiming to link farmers with city dwellers to provide green produce, which also allows farmers to gauge demand for produce and optimize crop yields. Scaled globally, the online-to-offline model could revolutionize the agriculture business and reduce the increasingly dramatic urban-rural divide.
Inability to care for the old is not just an economic turned political crisis; it is also a spiritual crisis. Taking care of your parents is part of what is known as xiàoshùn, inadequately translated as filial piety. To be a good child to your parents is synonymous with being a good person. This young generation is plagued by a desire to care for their parents coupled with an almost complete inability to do so.
Many people refer to these single children as “little emperors,” spoiled rotten from all the attention. With attention comes almost unimaginable pressure — to get into great schools, to succeed, to marry, to have children and ultimately to support the entire family. While some are in fact spoiled, many young Chinese feel buried by the attention and expectation. In reality, young Chinese have spent more time studying, trying to get any sliver of edge in China’s ultra-competitive education and job market. One in three students studying abroad in America right now hail from China, most often paying full tuition price.
In the short term, our universities are getting a major business boost from Chinese millennials. In the long term, these well-educated students will return to seek better opportunities back home.
Fourth, they’re proud. Chinese millennials have witnessed their country rise out of poverty at a pace and scale unmatched in human history. In 1990, China’s education system moved away from discussion primarily focused on Mao towards a focus on China’s historic achievements. This new approach coupled with their country’s recent surge upwards has given them a lot to feel proud of.
Their strong sense of self challenges the tacit belief that modernization inherently means Westernization. Interestingly, increased interaction with Western powers has left many of this generation less enamored with the Western style of society.
They view their own government as effective though flawed. Increased exposure to the United States through education and entertainment has led many to believe that all governments are flawed — not just theirs — and at least theirs gets things done. That said, they are fed up by government censorship and worried by a new, more overbearing set of Internet reforms and cultural standards from China’s leader Xi Jinping that have come about in the last year. The government has imposed limits on sharing posts on the popular microblogging site WeiBo as well as the social app WeChat and launched a truly befuddling crackdown on the celebrated Chinese rap scene in January, to name just two examples.
This young generation craves freedom. Millennials tattoo the word on their biceps and write it into their music. But rather than freedom from an oppressive, restrictive government, most seek freedom from an oppressive, restrictive set of traditional expectations.
Young women are told to spend a longer time pursuing higher education to get ahead but then called “leftover women” if they marry late — or not at all. Young men are told to take care of their parents and deliver a grandchild but are expected to own property before they can be considered eligible for marriage and end up borrowing from their parents and grandparents instead of supporting them. They’re labeled “parent eaters.”
This young generation is the first in modern Chinese history that, by and large, doesn’t have to think about subsistence questions like, “How is my family going to eat?” Instead, this generation is asking, “What do I want for myself? My family? My country?” They’re the identity generation, the restless generation, and they are the generation who will actually be able to determine what it means to be Chinese in the modern world.