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August 29, 2021

Responding To: Shared Approaches and Prospects for Peace: Part 2

Nervous Millennials

Becky Yang Hsu

In an era when America and China are always positioned at odds, there is something the two countries have in common: nervous millennials.

Millennials are those between 25 and 40 years of age. American millennials are doing worse than their parents. Even those with college degrees and good jobs do not feel like they are moving up in the world. Their upward mobility has been stalled. Especially now in the face of COVID-19 and with the global economic downturn, they feel like things will just get worse.

In China, too, millennials are anxious about the economy. They grew up in a period that saw an initial huge swing upwards, and then a lot of economic fluctuation during the past decade. From 2006 to 2016, one of the most important features changing the context that families in China were living in was an increase in disposable income. This was an era of rapid urbanization and marketization. The annual per capita disposable income of urban households increased almost threefold, from 11,619 RMB in 2006 to 33,616 RMB in 2016, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. While they do feel like they can do better than their parents, Chinese millennials carry something that American millennials do not: the century of humiliation.

On the Chinese mainland, history looms large. Respectability is an important part of many visions of a good life. Individuals in China feel their status in the world forcefully and are sensitive to being disrespected. A new book by Michael Schuman, Superpower Interrupted, describes how Chinese see their place in the world. Chinese learn in school what the West did during the Opium Wars. People in China—young and old—feel like their country finally has emerged from a painful era of Western influence and colonization.

The West did take advantage of China: this is a historical fact, and not necessarily indoctrination. So, when President Xi Jinping talks of a great rejuvenation after a century of humiliation, many people are eager to cooperate—to rise up together in a show of Chinese strength.

Chinese millennials want to rise in global standing. A young woman told me about a date she went on where she was mortified: the guy used chopsticks to eat spaghetti at an Italian restaurant—how unsophisticated, how uncosmopolitan.

The combination of ambition and insecurity can be seen in Guan Xiaozhi, a young man I interviewed a few years ago in Fujian province. In his mid-twenties, he has already risen from humble beginnings—most of his extended family is still in the village, where installing a heater for a hot shower is considered a luxury. When they go to the city, they must work at temporary jobs at restaurants, as nannies, or in construction. By contrast, Guan has a steady job (he started as a security guard, later moved to a hotel’s front desk) and takes classes at the local university in law. He hopes to go abroad to study. That dream feels within his grasp since he learned English through conversations with hotel patrons. But the cost of going abroad is very high. With his salary at 5,000 RMB per month (about $830), it would require 2 months to cover the cost of a plane ticket alone, not to mention living expenses and tuition.

Though Guan revels in his opportunities, he feels pressure from his extended family, who had hoped to see him married and parenting by now. Their disappointment is solely about his decision not to marry, yet they hope he will lift his entire family into higher lifestyle. He is at once hopeful and anxious, and he has no desire to overturn a system that is just starting to work for him. Pressures on young adults like him are monumental—family expectations, aspirations—and COVID-19 just means more instability in the Chinese economy.

There are some ways millennials in China have less economic pressure, perhaps, than American millennials. They have close connections to their parents that get reflected in home ownership (it is common to see Chinese parents give a housing unit to their children) and child care (Chinese grandparents often plan to do a fair bit of childcare, which living nearby helps with). Additionally, student debt is virtually non-existent because of heavy government subsidies.

Becky Hsu is an associate professor of sociology at Georgetown University, where she is also affiliated with the Asian Studies Program, the Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues, and the Graduate School's M.S. in Health and the Public Interest Program.

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