Chinese Millennials: New Minds In An Old World

 

Marketers’ focus on the “millennial” generation – that is, individuals born in the last two decades of the 20th century – has become an obsessive fixation, according to a recent The New York Times report.

How true.

Yes, millennials are more “digitally native” than older cohorts. And due to their dependence on technology, they’re “probably just a leading indicator of where life is headed for everyone.” Furthermore, the anxiety triggered by stagnant incomes and declining social mobility has resulted a global “live for now” (Pepsi Pepsi’s new tagline) ethos rather than a wholesale embrace of anti-conformist, anti-corporate values.

This myth of generational overthrow has also taken root in China — albeit writ large. The entire nation is convinced that the post-90s generation– 15- to 25-year-olds born after the 1989 Tiananmen “incident,” an era of seismic social and economic shift — is almost unrecognizably foreign.

True, the pace of change is swift in China. So swift, in fact, the post-90s generation is often contrasted to the post-80s generation.

Generational Evolution

The latter, at least those living in first-tier cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, matured during an era of naïve optimism. They entered the system only a few years after Deng Xiaoping proclaimed, “To get rich is glorious!” and turbo-charged the reform agenda.

Twenty years ago, China’s engagement with the world had barely begun. The Internet was accessible to only the privileged few. Parents still espoused protective values reinforced by their experiences during the instability of two man-made disasters — the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Back then, a diploma from even second-rate universities was a golden ticket.

Post-90s types are both more worldly and pessimistic. Until now, their lives have been comfortable. Video games, international travel, large bedrooms and Lays potato chips are taken for granted.

However, skies have darkened. Adulthood looms. Post-90s confront a reality of pervasive corruption, slowing growth rates, and existential fears born of environmental degradation that raise fundamental questions about the sustainability of China’s growth paradigm. Competition for good jobs is more intense than ever. Seven million graduates enter the job market each year with most unprepared for the global knowledge economy.

Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom. The digital revolution has broadened horizons. According to the National Business Daily, more than 10,000 enterprises are founded every day and the majority are Internet companies — a burst of creative entrepreneurialism and democratized market opportunity ripe for the picking. Social networks — in the first quarter of 2015, WeChat, TenCent’s largest community portal, had more than 480 million active users on the Mainland – have created China’s most branché generation. E-commerce has liberated commercial choice, particularly in lower-tier cities where bricks and mortar stores continue to underwhelm, to an extent unimaginable a few years ago. Alibaba Alibaba’s 24-hour Singles Day promotion, targeted toward lovelorn youth, generated more than $10 billion in revenue.

These forces, both positive and negative, have resulted in incontestable attitudinal changes.

The post-80s generation tended to be more naïve and more ambitious. Optimistic about getting ahead, they were prone to blue-sky professional fantasy. American Dreams in China was a popular 2013 film that captured bygone youthful aspirations. It told the story of three friends who ventured to the United States to launch a successful English language school that eventually got listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Post-90s realities have yielded a more grounded generation of doers. They are focused on the present, living in the moment. They crave experience over master-of-the-universe achievement. They bristle against constricted definitions of success. According to a J. Walter Thompson study on BRIC millennials, 27% of Chinese aged 15-25 now agree that an investment in a gap year represents good life experience. More broadly, they search for meaning through travel, crave global connections and a wider array of role models – including Ma Jiajia, an online sex shop operator, one of many idols who march to the beat of their own drummers. A favorite movie: Tiny Times, a light-hearted confection that celebrates, well, nothing in particular.

Cultural Constants

Still, generational factors can be overstated. Ten years of iPhones and online romance portals cannot sweep away thousands of years of Confucian culture. Surveys in China still show a preference for guardianship discourse with elites responsible for the good of the whole society.

Expressions of modern Chinese culture are affected by both constants and variables. The nation is more globally connected, affluent and digitalized. But many things haven’t changed. The structure of Chinese society – the relationship between individual and society – remains intact.

Yes, post-90s types sport tattoos and take vacations in Paris or New Zealand. But Western-style individualism – that is, the encouragement of society to define oneself independent of society — has not taken root. Education is rote, rooted in mastery of received wisdom, not creative self-expression. Getting rich is still “glorious,” but full-throttled capitalism has never been embraced. Challenge to convention remains risky. (There are no Chinese Steve Jobs on the horizon. Notable commercial successes, from Xioami mobile phones to Alibaba’s e-commerce portal, are twists on timeless Chinese corporate models that prize broad scale and low price.) Family structure remains traditional, with gay marriage an unthinkable proposition. Parental relationships, while more casual than years ago, are rooted in filial piety. Sons do not sass fathers. And commercial relationships are lubricated by personal relationships – or “face,” the fuel of forward advancement. Institutions that ensure an equal playing field do not exist. The tall, rich and handsome, or gaofushuai, exists on a higher, and non-intersecting, plane than dime-a-dozen diaosi — that is, the common guy or, directly translated, the stray dangling hair.

The Post 90s Master Tension

So China’s new generation remains conflicted. On one hand, individuals want to leave their mark – today – by pursuing their passions. On the other, they are held back by a regimented society. They are new minds in an old world. The Post 90s generation seeks brands that resolve the tensions between a quintessentially Chinese projection of status or power and the youthful celebration of now.

Sensation that does not move the individual forward, even in modest ways, still evaporates. In China, winning propositions have been, and always will be, a means to an end. Brands that enable young people to skillfully navigate youthful hearts command loyalty. Marketers who resolve the tension between ego affirmation and conformity deepen the role their brands play in life.

Text: Forbes Asia, by Forbes staff, 31-07-2015

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