As part of an English writing course, my Chinese university students recently prepared a group project on being young in China in 2013. They looked at things as varied as job prospects, dating rituals, and social responsibility and, in the end, found themselves perched uneasily at a time of vast change in their country.
"We live an infinitely better life than the elder generations. But why do we find it so hard and pressured to grow up?" the students wrote. "Facing the future of housing, marriage, and job, why do our hearts beat not with expectations but fear?"
These are heady times for China, with the world gaping at its transformation to economic powerhouse and wondering if the day when it eclipses the West is near. The new president, Xi Jinping, touts the "China dream," a now oft-heard catchphrase meant to stoke the aspirations of a nation on the comeback trail.
But spend time with young, educated Chinese, as I have for the past year, and the picture gets more complicated. Sporting smartphones and Nikes, the jiu ling hou—the name given the generation born in the 1990s—has benefited mightily from China's turnaround, inhabiting a world in many ways unrecognizable to grandparents still able to recall famine and empty rice bowls. Today's teens and twenty-somethings are more urban, more middle-class, and more outward-looking than their predecessors, even those born only a decade earlier. They thrive in a world of technology and social media and have few worries about where their next meal is coming from, or the one after that. To this generation, the good life is no novelty.
The young people I teach at Nanjing University recognize how far they've come, writing in biographical essays about parents who scrimped and sacrificed to pay for English tutors and Saturday math classes starting in grade school—all in the hope that higher education would prove the key to a better life for their children.
One young woman recounted how her father had quit his job so he could shuttle her to the best school in their city in northern China. She was 6 at the time. "I only remembered that the best time of those days is sitting on his bike, grasping the hem of his coat, and talking about my school life in a flood of words," she wrote. A "few years later, I realized that his resignation resulted in his job instability thereafter." In China, the ticket to social mobility gets stamped in school. Sound familiar, America?
By some estimates, nearly a third of China's population of more than 1.3 billion falls between the ages of 18 and 35, making it a demographic segment worth watching, at a moment of dizzying possibility and uncertainty. The students in my class are freer than their parents were to pursue the careers of their choice. But they eye a job market that grows more competitive by the day as a wave of university construction across China generates an ever-swelling ocean of graduates. Some seven million Chinese students were expected to don caps and gowns during the commencement season this spring. A bachelor's degree no longer seems a VIP ticket to success; in response, applications to graduate schools have jumped.
The tight job market is only one source of pressure. As products of China's one-child policy, most Chinese in their 20s and 30s know they will have no siblings with whom to share the burden later of caring for elderly parents, along with their own spouses and children. One of my students said he might forgo his dream of graduate school in order to start earning money to care for his ailing parents. And fast-rising housing prices have many young men worried about how they will be able to afford their own apartments—a prerequisite to attracting a bride in contemporary China.
For their part, educated young women, raised to study hard in order to get into the best universities, balance newly broadened opportunities against the traditions of a society that writes off as "leftover" those women who haven't wed by 30. Smart young women talk with surprising frankness about tamping down career ambitions, fearful that too much success may threaten an imagined future spouse.
My students bristle against the unflattering tags that elders like to stick on them: self-absorbed, materialistic, individualistic, spoiled. Whose fault is it, the young people ask, if they never learned to do housework because parents steered them to the study table instead? And though the jiu ling hou may be especially open to changing ways, they remain respectful of longstanding Chinese customs, such as filial piety.
My students use a different term to describe themselves: pragmatic. Indeed, signs of pragmatism abound on Chinese campuses. Students run online shops from their dorm rooms, peddling T-shirts and cosmetics and using microblogs to generate buzz about their products. Posters around campus promote certification courses in nuts-and-bolts topics like accounting and computer skills, should the job market in their majors fail them.
Young Chinese are aware of the huge problems facing China, including severe environmental degradation and yawning disparities between rich and poor. In considering solutions, though, formal politics seems to hold little appeal. On the day after President Obama won re-election last fall, I asked a group of students what they expected from their own country's new leadership, named the same week. The response was a wave of eye-rolling. I drew a line on the blackboard, wrote "Idealistic" on one end and "Cynical" on the other and asked them to guide me to the spot they would place themselves on the spectrum, starting from the middle. They pointed me toward "Cynical" and said to keep going.
In a heartening sign for future U.S.-Chinese relations, surveys show that these young Chinese tend to have more-favorable opinions of America than do their elders, perhaps owing to the flood of high-tech gadgets from the United States and Internet access to American television shows and movies, often in pirated form. (My students like The Big Bang Theory, The Vampire Diaries, and Gossip Girl.) They devoutly follow the NBA and have a knowledge of American culture that can be surprisingly sophisticated: My college juniors have read Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, while graduate students comb slave narratives and Cormac McCarthy novels in search of thesis topics.
A few months back, I asked one of my writing classes to envision what a happy life would look like to them in 10 years. Their responses, heartfelt and at times lyrical, sounded like a Chinese take on the American Dream: house and yard, spouse and child, good job, good health. Oh, and an easy commute—1990s kids have come too far to waste their lives in traffic.