Editor’s Note: Kristie Lu Stout is the host of CNN International’s flagship talk show On China. The latest episode airs for the first time Thursday 4:30 am ET and examines what it’s like to be young in today’s China.
It’s too easy to just call them entitled.
Like their peers in the West, China’s millennials are empowered, outspoken, and all too willing to challenge who’s in charge.
“People born in the 80s tend to question, ‘Why are you my boss?’,” says Jane Sun, co-president and COO of Ctrip, a Shanghai-based online travel company with 30,000 young employees.
“And young people born in the 90s don’t care who the boss is. They just want to be themselves.”
While their parents struggled through economic hardship and political isolation, China’s millennials – the generation born between 1984 and 1996 – have enjoyed a far higher standard of living and a strong link with the world thanks to growing up with the internet and having more opportunities to study in the West and travel abroad.
And as the generation that has felt the full impact of China’s one-child policy, a number of China’s millennials have been, yes, coddled by their parents.
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“A lot of parents have been through poverty and suffering, so they want their only child to have the best of everything,” says Chinese millennial entrepreneur Nini Suet of Shang Learning.
“And they got it. They have more options. They have more choices. And they can make the choice for themselves.”
Vast numbers of millennial Chinese are exercising their power of choice in the marketplace.
Making up 31% of China’s total population, they have become a spending army of over 400 million consumers – prompting Goldman Sachs to call them “the single most important demographic on the planet today.”
“The younger generation is much less inhibited on spending their money,” says Eric Fish, author of “China’s Millennials: The Want Generation.”
“For a long time, China has had an absurdly high savings rate. But you’re seeing that quickly dropping among young people who don’t have the memories of hardship and are much more willing to spend money.”
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But as they confront a slowing economy, the young people, who are accustomed to getting their way are now getting a dose of cold, hard reality.
“They’ve grown up being taught if you get an education, you’ll be set because that was true for their parents – the ones who passed the gaokao (China’s intense college entrance exam), got into college, and did well,” says Fish.
“But those jobs just aren’t there in the numbers that young people are expecting. So a lot are graduating and once they get to the cities, there’s nothing there.”
Scores of Chinese college grads are ending up living in squalid conditions with go-nowhere jobs, hoping to one day score the white collar work they were promised in their youth. Many end up in so-called “rat tribes,” makeshift shanty towns in the outskirts or subterranean corners of the city as they wait for the knock of opportunity.
“It’s remarkable how optimistic a lot of these young people are, despite this very gloomy situation,” Fish adds.
As fewer new jobs are available for young Chinese as they graduate from college, wealth inequality between generations continues to rise. Absurdly expensive real estate is also pricing young potential buyers out of the Chinese dream.
And adding to all that, a graying society that lacks adequate social welfare is putting additional strain on the younger generation to find a way to care for the aged.
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To cope with the pressure, young people are increasingly turning to support groups and spirituality. One study found that 62% of China’s religious believers are between the ages of 19 and 39.
“Millennials are open about sharing their emotional anxieties, sharing their stress, and looking for help and guidance,” says Suet.
But some others are turning to activism to push back against at system stacked against them.
Fish cites the start of large-scale environmental protests in 2007 and the 2013 Southern Weekend protests over media censorship as events that many young Chinese were willing to take part and speak up about.
He also points out that the five Chinese feminists recently detained for their planned protest against sexual harassment are all millennials.
“As things get tougher economically in the next few years, it’s going to be a big challenge for the country,” says Fish.
“Young people are demanding a lot more and forcing company owners, the government and parents to accommodate this.”
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Recognizing the difficulty of securing a home in one of China’s top tier cities, Ctrip has plans to provide reasonable accommodation in addition to offering financial incentives for young employees to start a family.
“Living in the city is very expensive so we need to build enough affordable housing for these excellent young people to work and live in,” says Sun.
“As an enterprise, we owe society and our employees the responsibility to do whatever we can to support them.”
Instead of musing over how self-centered millennials are or obsessing about what this “important demographic” is willing to buy, why not give them a fair shot at social mobility and economic opportunity?
Now that is something China’s millennials should be entitled to.