China’s millennials could be the world’s most important generation

China’s millennials could be the world’s most important generation

By Luke Vargas   
Published
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China's 400 million millennials are fiercely competitive, tapped into global education, commerce and tourism, and coming of age as China takes the lead on the world stage.

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following are excerpts from Episode 29, “China’s ‘Millennials’ Make Waves,” with guest Zak Dychtwald, author of the new book, “Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World.”

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Becoming fascinated with China

Zak Dychtwald: “The first time I went to China, I went because of a fascination with the future. I was deciding where to study abroad when I was 20 at Columbia, and I figured I could go to Europe and study history, or I could go to China and see where everybody said the future was happening.

Afterwards I went back to New York, stayed for a little bit of time, and realized that as exciting as it was being back in New York, the China that I had been experiencing felt so different than the China that was being described to be in the news, in reports and just reverberating off friends and people I would talk to, that I wanted to go and sort of figure it out for myself.”

Building trust with young people in China

Zak Dychtwald: “At one point I was living in what’s called an ‘inn’ – it was sort of like a youth hostel but with several long-term tenants – it was an apartment on the outskirts of Chengdu, and there were young people from all over the country and the greater China region – Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet – all coming in and out.

And when you’re in a situation like that, the type of language you’re learning and the linguistic cues, and also the environmental cues – the comfort you have with the topics, the comfort you have with the people talking to about issues that are relevant to them – I often say that China is divided from the world by not just one wall, a cultural wall, but two, a linguistic wall as well.

So you get through the linguistic wall, but the culture doesn’t always translate as neatly. So much of the culture is hard-baked into the DNA of the language, so as you’re learning the language as an adult – which a lot of people shy away from – you’re actually excavating the culture as well. It’s a really fascinating process, and it’s absolutely fundamental to building trust.

I’ve recently started a small think tank to allow myself to keep doing this research and spend a lot more time in China and I’m having to re-learn a lot of the ‘business Chinese’ because I talk like I’m a 24-year-old kid kind of shooting it with my friends. And they are different styles. But the way that I talk, it becomes easier to create bonds of trust fast, and that’s because the way I learned it was just in conversation with people.”

A portrait of China’s 400 million ‘millennials’

Zak Dychtwald: “There’s a big to-do about American millennials – how do you appeal to us, how do you identify us, what do we want, what do we stand for – there’s about 80 million millennials in the United States. In China there are 400 million, five times as many as we have in the United States, more than the entire population of the United States and Canada combined.

Because of Chinese demography – China had one of the largest baby booms in the world – you now have what they refer to as a 4-2-1 problem: four grandparents for every two parents for every one child.

We talk about this idea of ‘little emperors,’ with all the elder generations bearing down on them, all that attention. Absolutely, that attention is there, but with that attention comes pressure, comes expectation.

The project of childhood is different in China. When we’re playing video games, when we’re having sleepovers – I feel like I’m a relatively competitive person, I went to a competitive school – we don’t have anything that compares to what the average childhood looks like in China.”

The admissions rate to attend China's Tsinghua University is less than 1-in-1,000 for students applying from certain provinces. Courtesy: Tsinghua University
The admissions rate to attend China’s Tsinghua University is less than 1-in-1,000 for students applying from certain provinces. Courtesy: Tsinghua University

How China’s millennials cope with competition and change

Zak Dychtwald: “China has changed so fast at such a scale that any plan that you have is subject to the rapid tides of change that move so much faster in China than anywhere else in the world.

I’ll give you an example. In the United States, since I was born – I was born in 1990 – the per capita GDP has increased two-and-a-half times since I’ve been alive. That’s really remarkable. The same person born the same year in China, in that same period of time, the per capita GDP has increased 25 times.

This young generation has witnessed their country move from rags to riches at a pace and scale unmatched in human history. So they recognize that change happens – they’re born into an ecosystem of change that we really can’t even begin to fathom.”

Chinese consumer culture and the pursuit of stability

Zak Dychtwald: “There is no doubt that there is a need to enjoy the moment, especially after years of studying, after years of library time.

‘Single’s Day’ [the world’s largest shopping holiday] allows shoppers in China to improve their perceived value. You know, if I can buy a Rolex, then people who see me wearing a Rolex will think I’m doing better in life. It’s a sign of wealth, it’s a sign of 安全感 – security – which is massively important.

You could look at those purchases as an investment – you’re investing in improving your appearance, you’re investing in an apartment so that you’re able to have a wife. In China, if you’re a young man, you are seen as intelligible, you’re seen as an ineligible bachelor if you don’t own property. And that goes back to the sense of safety – 安全感 – are you able to give me a sense of safety? Do you at least have an apartment?

So while it is breaking the bank for many young people to buy an apartment in China, it’s seen as necessary to have that lasting happiness or lasting contentment that comes with a family.”

A screen shows a tally of one-day sales from Alibaba's 2017 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, which raked in more than $25 billion for the Chinese retailer. Courtesy: Alibaba Group.
A screen shows a tally of one-day sales from Alibaba’s 2017 11.11 Global Shopping Festival, which raked in more than $25 billion for the Chinese retailer. Courtesy: Alibaba Group.

What ‘freedom’ means to China’s millennials

“Freedom is one of the major buzzwords I encounter in almost every conversation I have, when we really get into it, in China. And I’ve seen people tattoo it onto their wrist, I have seen it pasted on peoples’ clothing, on their cars, on the ceilings of the apartments so it’s the last thing they see when they go to sleep and the first thing they see in the morning:自由, freedom. It is part of this dream of the young generation.

However, what we imagine is often freedom from an oppressive, restrictive government. The freedom this young generation craves is freedom from an oppressive, restrictive set of traditions and expectations.

I think of this young generation as being at the fault line between two tectonic plates. On one side you have what it means to be Chinese: this really dense, strong sense of self, Confucianism, history, a certain amount of dominance and wealth and prosperity over the years – not dominance, because they weren’t going out and conquering, but prosperity absolutely – but also this idea of a Confucian household, that you have to get married, that you have to extend the bloodline – this Chinese sense of self.

On the other end, you have this other tectonic plate, which is the pressures of modernity. It means buying an apartment, getting a good job. And these two tectonic plates are grinding at one another.

For young women, there’s this idea that you should marry young and start a family. That’s tradition. But on the modernity side, there’s this notion that if you don’t get a master’s degree you’re going to be unemployed. So you’re going to be in school until you’re 25, and then if you’re over the age of 27 and now 30 and you’re not married you’re considered a 剩女, you’re considered a ‘leftover woman.’

So the conflict between tradition and modernity grinds at this young generation. So the want for freedom and the things that press on young people are not the government in the way we’d expect it.”

How China’s young generation could change the world 

What’s hard to do is focus on one industry. Because if you’re making cars, cell phones, solar panels, soda, jeans, if you like to watch movies or if you’re making movies, if you’re worried about international politics or your local manufacturing plant, if you’re worried about green energy or coal, China and this young generation is going to impact you individually, personally.

They have so much cultural gravity that comes from political and economic consequence, that they are starting to change the way the western world spins for really the first time in modern history – the idea that an eastern power can start impacting a western power, the United States, at an appreciable level.

So understanding who they are – not just what the numbers look like, but actually what they want, what they dream of, what keeps them up at night, how they see themselves, how they see the world – these identity questions impact and lead the political and economic questions. So understanding who they are is only going to create opportunities for a better relationship, be it on a world peace level, on a political level, but also on a business level it’s absolutely essential.

And then on a personal level – the person buying up your real estate in your home town is likely – it’s not even might be, it’s likely – from China, your classmates – more and more Americans are sending their kids abroad to study Chinese in China – there’s more and more interaction, [so] coming from a place of understanding, creating those bridges of understanding is essential for any level of relationship with China going forward.”

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