Who wants to be a Chinese millennial? At home they’re perceived as spoilt. Abroad they’re seen as politically disengaged by journalists who feign shock at their ignorance of the iconic Tiananmen 'tank man' picture, an image meticulously scrubbed from the Chinese Internet. Neither notion much captures the reality of Chinese millennials—some 400 million people born between 1984 and 1996.
Though their hardships can hardly compare with those of their parents and grandparents, who sometimes didn’t have enough to eat, Chinese millennials have inherited conditions that in many ways are unenviable. This is something American journalist Eric Fish elucidates in his book China’s Millennials: The Want Generation.
The number of Chinese graduating university each year grows by 250,000 at a time when the number of jobs available to them is declining 20 percent per annum. China’s economy, previously full of opportunities, is slowing down after much of the country’s wealth and power has already been consolidated in relatively few elites. Unless you’re one of the lucky few, “it’s hard to break into those circles and move up.” Fish says.
On the other hand, many successful tech startups are being launched by the very millennials excluded by the big universities and more famous companies.
China’s gender imbalance is increasing by an additional 1 million men every year, making it harder for straight young men to find marriage partners. Many of those who do will struggle to buy houses in a grossly inflated market. Moreover, most millennials are only children burdened with the “4:2:1 problem”, each of them with four grandparents and two parents who they may be expected to help support.
With the path to material success becoming less smooth, many Chinese millennials are choosing to prioritise different things. One woman Fish spoke to left China to study writing in the States against her parents’ wishes, a conflict of values she describes in almost embarrassingly stark terms: “my parents want me to pursue materialism. I want to pursue meaning.”
Entrepreneurship, free expression and advocacy for women’s rights are all ways in which Fish found Chinese millennials increasingly asserting themselves. “I think this generation is becoming more ambitious in terms of wanting things other than money,” he says.
For marketers, better understanding of a broad range of emerging motivations is essential to engaging Chinese millennials.
Sam Gaskin is content editor with Flamingo Shanghai