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Generations in China (1)

Many thanks to all who joined the discussion several weeks ago regarding generations in India. I hope those of you who grew up in China will share your formative experiences and the resultant conceptual models that influence your view of today's world. Let me offer an initial overview, based on my research.
Individuals born from about 1928 to 1945 (Traditionalists)
In the 1940's and 1950's, while teens in India were living through the advent of the independent Indian state and those in the U.S. were experiencing the birth of the consumer economy, teens in China were also living through a major transition. The second Sino-Japanese War, the largest Asian war in the twentieth century, ended, ending the 14-year-long Japanese invasion. In its wake, civil war raged between the Nationalist and Communist parties. In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party fled to Taiwan and, on October 1, the Communists established the People's Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland.
Communist leader Mao Zedong initiated major economic reforms — a socialist "Big Push" to industrialize China, replacing landlord ownership and peasant workers with the development of heavy industry and the construction of new factories. Throughout the 1950's, Mao's campaigns to suppress former landlords and capitalists intensified; foreign investment in the country essentially ended. In 1958, Mao launched a new initiative, the "Great Leap Forward" — an unprecedented process of collectivization in rural areas: the formation of communes, the abolition of private plots, and the creation of a massive auxiliary network of small-scale industries, such as backyard iron smelters to produce steel — all designed to shift the nation from an agrarian to industrial economy. Agricultural output plunged, resulting in widespread malnutrition. By 1960, the country was in the throes of an economic and humanitarian disaster; 30 million people perished.
For teens coming of age during these years, it was a time of conflict and confusion as traditional ways of life were uprooted in pursuit of modernization. Hard physical work and poverty was a fact of life for most. This generation learned that affiliating with the "right" people was essential for survival, advice they undoubtedly offered to their children.
Individuals born from about 1946 to 1960/1964 (Boomers)
The 1960's and 1970's were the years of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution. Under Mao's socialist orthodoxy, both traditional Chinese and Western culture were repressed, social institutions collapsed, schools were abolished, public transportation came to a nearly complete halt, temples and churches were vandalized, and "liberal bourgeoisie" and intellectuals purged. Sino-Soviet relations deteriorated, ending Soviet technical assistance and further isolating the country. Living conditions remained extremely difficult.
Unlike teens in the United States and in India who formed cynical views of authority based on the corruption they saw in their leaders, teens in China were a major force within the Cult of Mao. With no schools to attend, they joined the Red Guards and gained whatever knowledge they had from the Chairman's Little Red Book. Many demonstrated in support of Mao and joined in terrorizing ordinary citizens. Members of this generation in China grew up with the belief that loyalty to the state and institutions would be rewarded, questioning authority was unacceptable, education was unnecessary, and anything "foreign" or "old fashioned" was unwanted. They were dedicated to a single way — "the" way of doing things.
After Mao's death in 1976, the Cult of Mao rapidly devolved, leaving many in this generation — now young adults — disillusioned, uneducated, and angry at their sudden oust from power. Today this generation is known in China as the "Lost Generation," since, without any formal education, many of its members are ill prepared to participate in the modern world.
Generation X - Individuals born from about 1961/1965 to 1979
Growing up in the post-Mao 70's and 80's, years, teen X'ers in China grew up during the period of Economic Reforms and Openness, similar to the reforms underway in India at the same time: de-collectivization of the countryside, decentralization of government, and legalization of private ownership. Special Economic Zones were created to encourage capitalist investment. Reforms included the development of a diversified banking system and stock markets. The consumer and export sectors developed rapidly. By the mid-1980s, living standards, life expectancies, literacy rates, and total grain output were up and an urban middle class was growing. X'ers became the first generation in China to come of age in a consumer society.
This generation of teens in China also grew up with more personal rights and freedoms than the previous two generations. By 1980, Deng Xiaoping had maneuvered to the top of China's leadership. There was a renaissance of traditional Chi

Generations in China (2)

(There was a renaissance of traditional) Chinese culture; local religions including Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism flourished. Beginning in the late 1980s, mainland China was exposed to many Western elements: pop culture, American cinema, nightlife, American brands, and Western teen slang. China developed a strong cell phone culture, and soon had the most mobile users in the world.

Despite the economic and cultural progress, the country remained a totalitarian state. Liberals protested Deng's unrelenting stance on the political front. In 1989, the Tiananmen Square protests resulted in China's government being condemned internationally.

For this generation, the flood of new information, academic opportunities, and world knowledge was highly appealing and shaped a life-long inclination toward learning from multiple sources. Economic opportunity, including a growing consumer market, was available for those who studied and worked hard. Members balanced between the reinvigoration of China's cultural heritage and exploration of opportunities in the West. Not naturally Western-savvy, X'ers developed with a mental model that was highly pragmatic and facts-based.

Generation Y - Individuals born from 1980 to 1995
Around the world, Generation Y teens shared many common experiences. As in India and the U.S., teens in China were swept up in a booming economy. Although foreign trade embargoes from Tiananmen were in place, economic growth in China continued at a fast pace during the 1990's and early 2000's. Reforms continued, including the sale of equity in China's largest state banks to foreign investors and refinements in foreign exchange and bond markets. In 2004, the National People's Congress provided protection for private property rights and placed new emphasis on reducing some of the disadvantage of industrial growth, including regional unemployment, unequal income distribution between urban and rural regions, and environmental pollution. The country made significant investments made in science, technology and space exploration. Thousands moved from rural villages to cities, farms to factories, leaving behind family, class and history. By 2007, most of China's growth was coming from the private sector. Throughout this period, China has gradually become more open and less repressive - not a democracy, but also no longer a totalitarian state.
Nicknamed the "Litter Emperors," Gen Y's in China occupy a special role in the burgeoning society. China's one child policy, introduced in 1979, means that most members of this generation are only children, in many instances reared as the sole focus of two parents and four doting grandparents. They tend to have high self esteem and a level of confidence that positions them for leadership roles in China and globally.

Like many Y's around the world, this generation has strong advanced technological skills and an urge to be connected globally. Even as teens, they confidently communicate directly with outside world leadership and influence the future of their country. During the 2008 Tibetan unrest which marked the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibetan uprising against Beijing's rule, young patriotic Chinese waged Internet campaigns against Western media coverage of the protests. Also in 2008, when a massive earthquake killed 70,000, many young people participated in the rescue as volunteers.

Teen Y's in China have experienced a wave of national pride. Two foreign colonies were returned to China during their teen years: Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 and Macau from Portugal in 1999. In 2001, China was admitted into the World Trade Organization. Most significantly, in 2008, China successfully hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics.

As in India, Y's in China share this generation's global sense of immediacy, coupled with the excitement of being part of the country's first wave of broad economic opportunity and growing national pride. Y's in China are confident and competitive. For many, a desire for economic success is closely coupled with a desire for status. They are looking forward, toward increasing China's role and influence in the world.

As we look ahead to future generations, the one child policy was re-evaluated in 2008 and extended for at least another decade, insuring that the next generation will also be comprised largely of single children.

China, like other countries I'll discuss over the upcoming weeks, illustrates the dramatically different experiences and formative events that influenced those growing up in the 1940's – 1970's (the generations that I call Traditionalists and Boomers in the United States), and the growing similarity of experiences in the 1980's onward. Generations X and Y are the beginnings of global generations.

Now I'd love to hear from you — particularly if you grew up in China. What events were most memorable and influential during your teen years? What characteristics influence the way you view the world today?

Generations in China (3)


Hi Tammy -
A couple of things you might want to fix. "Litter Emperors" should read "Little Emperors," though I agree they have a regrettable tendency to litter. Read a well-accepted definition of "totalitarian" before you affix that label on any of the post-Mao leaders; "authoritarian" for sure in the 80s, but far short of totalitarian. Also, picking a nit here, it wasn't the protests of '89 that resulted in condemnation of the Chinese government, but the crackdown on the protests.

I think the "boomer" label is somewhat misleading. The big population bulge was for people born in the mid-sixties, during the decade of the Cultural Revolution and the years just prior to it. China didn't experience an immediate post-War baby boom the way the U.S. did.

As someone who has lived in China for 15 years, and whose Chinese friends are mostly from your Gen X group, I think your description of them is on. But I think you're a bit too sunny about the Gen Y set. Sure, some of them have healthy self-esteem and confidence--the positive side of the sense of entitlement they have--but many are also helplessly dependent on parents. I recall hiring for a position some years ago and receiving calls from parents on behalf of their Gen Y kids. How sad.
- Posted by Kaiser Kuo
March 30, 2009 11:33 AM

I was born in 1971 and could be labelled as Generation X. But I can not say I am a quintessential X type because I spent quite a long time overseas and heavily influenced by Western cultures.

However, in the core i still represents 70's values, pragmatic and responsible. Now many many powerful positions in the government and private sectors are gradually falling to the hands of X generations. They have more says to the economic and social changes. However, I think my generation also has the problems of internal conflicts between traditional Chinese value and the modern western values, which requires a big amount of energy to seek the balance.

Somewords about the people born after 1980's. They are confident but they are also self-centered. They care other people much less than themselves. And in my experience to work with Generation Y, on the one hand, they don't like to do what so called "small things" but on the other hand, they are not able to handle or do "big things" well. They are ambitious but lack of patience. They wish to become big boss overnight but is in short of starting from zero. To be frank, I have worries about the world when it is under the control of Generation Y.
- Posted by Grant Xie
March 31, 2009 10:47 AM

This is an good categorization of Chinese generation. However, being Chinese myself, and working in a Chinese environment, there is a big chunk that many westerners do not understand about Chinese and what drives us. For many years during the cultural revolution, not only was loyalty to the state emphasized and demanded, betrayal of your parents, friends and all other societal relationships was also encouraged. This in turn changed and twisted the very essence of human nature for the vast majority growing up in this time. Educated or not, this distrust of all others was passed on to following generations who had this ingrained in their character. This shapes and drives much of what we as Chinese do and how we relate to one another and westerners as well. Many times we regard western thinking, philosophies and categories as simplistic, they just simply do not understand and can not wrap their minds around the complexity of the Chinese motivations. It would seem fictional to most but it is a reality for the Chinese. The end justifies the means for even the most honest, sincere and well intentioned.
- Posted by woosze
April 3, 2009 9:07 PM

Re: Generations in China (4)

You are trying to categorize 1.3 billion people into a few groups that are predefined for US people.
Simply put, I think it’s not a good way to understand Chinese people. China has thousands years history. And you are using 15~20 years to describe a generation. You bet that we won’t change so fast. In this “15~20 years” granularity, we Chinese had evolved to aliensJ
People always tell you that China is changing in a fast pace if not the fastest. But actually, we aren’t. Environment changed a lot. But mentally we are still staying in the old mode.

For example, people here always worry about that the “next generation” is watered down. But, you can read a lot of similar stories from old Chinese novel. People who said you just forgot what they looked like when they were young, or, they felt threaten from younger. So, they need to label these threaten as “generations” although they might only know a few young people. Then, they can judge younger as a whole, so that they can use some bad cases to undervalue all of them.

BTW, I’m an “X”, and I found that the so-called “Y” is just younger “X”, and they will become us 15 years later. Be patient.

I strongly suggest you throw the boomer/X/Y category away if you really want to understand Chinese people. Why don’t you use “zone” or other category to analyze Chinese?

- Posted by Eric Wang
April 8, 2009 5:43 AM

Hi Everyone –
Several of you have sent very helpful messages related to this post – particularly related to Gen Y’s.

Becky Coomer, sent me a direct email (and permission to share her views with all of you), commenting that my characterization of Y’s overstated her observation of their level of self-confidence. Becky wrote, in part:

“I have taught University students for several years now in China and have found Generation Y lacking confidence. Though outwardly many can and will say "I believe in myself" as they are taught to in classes, when I have sat and had lunch with both introverted and extroverted students, insecurity shines through . . . They do feel pressure of being the only child. If they fail, they are not only failing themselves in their hearts (and many have been told) they are failing their families.

"In oral English class when asked, "What is one thing you would change about your life," a student replied: “I wouldn't be so tall. Because I am tall, my classmates, my family, my friends- they all expect me to be a leader." In an interview that NBA player Yao Ming did with an American television station he said "When I go to China people say ' you are the hope of China.' I just play basketball. I'm not the hope of China."

"Many (not all) female students have [said] that if they could change one thing, they would change their gender, because their parents are ashamed that they had a girl. As in line with tradition, if the girl marries then she will join her husband in supporting his family not hers and there will be no heir left to take care of her family. There are of course more and more exceptions to this tradition.”

I suspect some of the difference between Becky’s experience and mine, is that my research was heavily influenced by individuals who are active in the business world, while Becky’s perspective may touch a broader group.

To this, Becky responded, “The business people I have encountered do seem to be very determined . . . A few friends that I know with less determined personalities were unable to succeed in the business community and in turn switched fields of work.”
Thanks, Becky – very helpful comments!

And Kaiser, thank you for the corrections! Much appreciated. Regarding the “Boomer” label, I agree that it doesn’t apply to that generation in China; by putting the birth dates first in the headline, followed by the name in parentheses, I was trying to use “Boomers” only as a reference to the equivalent U.S. generation. I apologize for the confusion.
Kaiser and Grant, I hear your frustrations with Generation Y. I don't know if this is of any comfort, but I can say with confidence that your perceptions are shared by many in Generation X! However, I encourage you to be a little careful the “entitlement” label or the perception of impatience; in many cases, the close relationships with parents result from genuine affection and habit, not from need. The seeming impatience is, for many, a desire to live life fully today in a world shaped by random events. Some of my earlier posts, and my latest book, Plugged In, explore these characteristics, and their derivation, in more detail.
Again, thank you all for your comments.

- Posted by Tammy Erickson
March 31, 2009 5:50 PM