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China’s Generation Y

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Generation Y

From dirty blackboards to pop star worship, China is changing

When I was in college, my classmates always made sure we cleaned the blackboard before our professor arrived.

Nearly 10 years later, I am an assistant professor at Jinan University in Guangdong and I am usually greeted by a dirty blackboard when I come to class.

Is there really that big a difference between Generation Y and my generation, just a few years older? Last week, one of my graduate school classmates called me complaining of the indolence of his young assistants. His students—members of the post-1980 generation— were unwilling to work overtime. Still, does that make them so different?

In the West, the term Gen Y is often used to describe people born in the 1980s and 1990s. It is a generation comprising approximately 300 million people. Therefore, it is almost impossible to paint a precise picture of a group that spans two decades.

Little Emperors
The key to understanding Gen Y is to understand the environment in which they are growing up. In China, the idea of ‘more children, greater happiness’ has been a traditional belief, but the implementation of the one-child policy in the early 1980s dramatically changed the Chinese concepts of marriage, birth, and family.

Though the one-child policy met great resistance in the beginning, some traditional beliefs were gradually discarded. As a result, more and more one-child families appeared in society. The single children grew up in traditional, extended families. Without brothers or sisters to share the attention and affection, the single child became the focus of the family.

Some children exposed to excessive doting from their parents and grandparents probably developed some bad habits. For many in the older generations, the Chinese youth of today seem too self-centered and overconfident. They do not care for others, have no sense of responsibility, and cannot handle frustration and failure.

Smart parents and families should have avoided attitude problems by providing proper instruction and guidance while they were bringing up their children. But the negative image of these so-called ‘little emperors’ cannot hold true for every individual in this group.

For example, my wife, who is part of the post-1980s generation, is far removed from the bad things linked to Gen Y. Some of my young students and friends have also shown themselves outstanding, both in academics and in interpersonal relationships.

Interesting Times
Members of Gen Y are products of their time; and the past three decades have seen China undergo tremendous economic growth and great social change. Economic development in an increasingly open society leads to the collapse of traditional hierarchies.

Gen Y’s objects of worship are now their pop idols, athletes, and other celebrities. Respect and awe for traditional Communist Party of China (CPC) organizations and authority figures, such as teachers and superiors, are gradually eroding.

They do not comply with hierarchic rules as previous generations did. They treat traditions with a more democratic attitude. In general, they are more individualistic and are moving away from traditional mores, a constant source of conflict between them and the older generation.

One of my students tells me that the youth as a whole have lost interest in questions of ideology and will not be as loyal to the CPC as previous generations have been.

Technology also creates a huge gap between Gen Y and previous generations. Because of the popularity of the Internet in China, Gen Y is fully exposed to the influence of other cultures. They now have instant access to information from the whole world and this gives them a different perspective.

With access to multimedia and new methods of communication, China’s Gen Y now has access to information not printed in the official newspaper. This lets them develop independent and rational thought and allows them to make their own judgments beyond the indoctrination of official propaganda. This does not keep older generations from seeing them as naive and misguided, however.

To a great extent, access to the Internet also accelerates the disintegration of traditional authority. Although the Chinese growing up in the 1970s and 1980s were already exposed to Western pop music and Hollywood films, the post-1980s generation seems more susceptible to Western influences.

Gen Y has a totally different understanding of democracy and freedom compared to those born before them. I am afraid Western ideas and institutions will soon take root in China. For instance, they have often expressed their dissatisfaction over the Chinese government’s censorship on the Internet. I believe that once the elites among Gen Y grab power in the future, it is likely that Mainland China will once again shake with massive changes. This process is most likely irreversible.

Fun-loving Yet Fragile
What about Generation Y in rural China, a sector that is often ignored by the media? Like their urban counterparts, rural Gen Y-ers also fans of mobile phones, MP3 players, online gaming, and other gadgets. Every year, a great number of young people fascinated by prospects of prosperity in urban centers leave their hometowns. Without college degrees, they throw themselves at any job opportunity in the city and often end up as menial laborers.

They are more inclined to a lifestyle devoted to self-actualization rather than the more traditional ‘work hard, get rich’ mentality. This means that they will not follow in their parents’ footsteps to be farmers. For them, hard work on the farm is no longer acceptable or dignified.

In their spare time, rural Gen Y hangs out at Internet cafés or sings the night away in karaoke bars. They live as if there is no tomorrow and often use up all the money they earn on having a good time. Many of these young people, who leave their parents behind, have more fragile egos and seem allergic to criticism. They are also more vulnerable to failures and setbacks in life, something that may be seen in the recent series of suicides at the Foxconn complex in Shenzhen.

In general, members of Gen Y are more self-centered and often value freedom and entertainment over traditional roles and values. This does not mean, however, that they are all like that. After all, we probably heard the same criticism from our elders when we were growing up.

Print ed: 07/10


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