Publication: China’s “post-90’s generation”

In this week’s column, I try to figure out what makes today’s Chinese teens tick. Read it here or on China Daily:

Post-90s not so different

There is a group of people in China who frequently come up in conversation accompanied by a resigned sigh or a dismissive “Oh, them.” In the media, they regularly feature as a subject of discourse, as the public attempts to diagnose them, identify the causes of their malaise, and figure out what can be done to fix them. From the way they are talked about, you would think they were a colony of aliens.

But they are not. They are just like me, only younger.

I am talking about the “post-90s”, the cohort born during China’s golden decade. Most of them are just now entering adulthood. In their lives so far, they have only tasted the sweet fruits of market reform and they harbor no bittersweet memories of the past. Because of the fortuitous timing of their births, the post-90s are a distinctive breed.

In public discussion, the post-90s are routinely characterized as a selfish, unwelcoming, and solitary bunch. They are allegedly unmotivated about exerting themselves, yet have expensive tastes, fed by the collective doting of six parents and grandparents. In school, they are supposedly apathetic; in life, lethargic.

The only thing that captivates their generally disinterested attention is the Internet. The prototype post-90s child spends his days poring over a laptop, conversing intensely with hundreds of strangers who are also doing their best to avoid communicating with real people, especially their parents.

Is there truth to this harsh depiction or have we concocted an exaggerated stereotype? Are the post-90s really so bizarrely different, and if so, why?

The adults – parents and teachers especially – certainly think that their charges are in fact oddly different. I myself have observed post-90s children sulking at home on weekends, plugged into three electronic devices and ignoring all conversation directed their way.

There are a few common explanations for why the post-90s are the way they are. Economic prosperity during the decade is seen as the main culprit. Born into the laps of luxury, these young ones are used to having nice things without working to earn them.

One mother of a 13-year-old boy lamented, “My elder daughter remembers falling asleep on the backseat of my bicycle in the 1980s, so she is a lot easier to please when it comes to material goods. But when my son was born, we already had a car; he always expects to have the best.”

The “one child policy” is another aggravating factor that is often blamed. By 1990, the policy had been in place for a decade, producing a generation of children who grew up in isolation, without the camaraderie of siblings, or cousins even. The post-90s exhibit classic single child syndromes. A history teacher at Beijing No 80 Middle School pinpoints one culturally important quality that has been lost on this generation: “They are unprepared to chiku (literally “eat bitterness”), and they don’t want to chiku.”

Perhaps the most profound force shaping the post-90s generation is technology. A study reports that 70 percent of children in China aged 7 to 15 have surfed the Web; and more than half of those living in townships and cities have Internet connections at home. The figure for Beijing is surely much higher.

While computers and instant access to wide-ranging information can be useful tools in learning, they can also cause “alienation, poor social skills and Internet addiction”, in the words of a veteran expatriate educator who has taught at the Beijing Foreign Studies University.

So the post-90s are dramatically different from other cohorts and society is worried. What then?

As parents and educators try to prepare post-90s children for the “real world”, they sometimes resort to scolding, pressuring and pulling out the “when I was your age” card. I’ve been guilty of doing the same with younger relatives. But each time I tell a yawning 18-year-old what he should be doing at his age, I also remember that I’m applying an outdated mentality to current issues.

After all, how can we expect the post-90s to resemble their elders in work ethic or attitude on life when they lived through such a unique time in China’s history? Is it right to impose our fears on these insouciant youths? Didn’t the parents of post-90s work hard precisely so their children could grow up without the oppressive worries that preoccupy people who have experienced war and famine?

Perhaps the apathy, lethargy and selfishness we observe are normal responses to the post-90s environment. And let’s not forget that every generation tries to define itself in opposition to its precedents. It may turn out that when they get older, the post-90s will prove themselves to not be so different from the rest of us.

I do think more could be done to engage post-90s children with the world outside of their comfortable homes. Making room for charity work and community service in crammed school days may produce more responsible, aware and compassionate students, who may eventually begin to give a hoot.

Other than this, the mass stress over the state of the post-90s may be excessive. As one teenager coolly told me, “I just want to tell everyone to relax. I’m going to be OK.”


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