Coming of age in an era of prosperity: Meet China’s ‘bubble generation’
WUHAN, China (Reuters) – Call them China’s bubble generation.
They were born after the crushing of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, raised mostly without siblings during an unprecedented economic boom, and came of age as Xi Jinping, China’s strongest leader in decades, ascended to power.
It’s a generation that grew up in an era of prosperity and peace; one that has not “eaten bitterness” – or struggled – as their parents and grandparents did.
With Xi starting another five years as China’s top leader, Reuters sought to get to know some members of this bubble generation – 10 people who graduated from university and entered the workforce when Xi’s first term started five years ago.
They are the “Class of 2012”.
The 10 men and women represent just a fraction of the 190 million people born in the 1990s, but they provided key insights into Xi’s China and the generation that will inherit his legacy.
They live in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Wuhan and Putuan, in Hubei province. Their backgrounds are diverse. They are the sons and daughters of a former factory owner, restaurateurs, a doctor, a construction worker, a local official, and a school administrator.
They attended three different universities – China’s leading trade and economics college in Beijing, a regional university in the central city of Wuhan, and a third-tier technology school in the southwestern city of Chengdu.
That makes them somewhat privileged in a country where relatively few people get to pursue higher education.
Their experiences differ, often widely. And yet, they have much in common.
They are optimistic, open-minded and tend to have a free-spirited streak, even though family roots and obligations remain important. For the unmarried among them, some feel acute pressure to find a mate. Others actively reject the traditional path.
“A good thing about our generation is that, I think, we have more direction in our lives,” said Wu Qiong, the 27-year-old daughter of an insurance saleswoman and a kindergarten headmaster in Wuhan. “Really, you know how you want to live your life, rather than everyone living the same way.”
They crave travel and experiences, and grew up in comfort for the most part. Most have had everything they’ve needed – food and clothing – and often more, things like Nintendo Gameboys or vacations.
They’ve all known extraordinary economic growth year in and year out, making a painful slowdown hard to imagine. Property prices only rise in their world – a double edged sword for young adults trying to get established.
China’s upward trajectory is a given.
“I think the world is getting better and better,” said Qin Lijuan, 28, a personal finance consultant in Chengdu. “Even if we face an economic crisis, as long as you make safe plans your life is still worry-free.”
Members of the “Class of 2012”, like many in China, project political apathy – reflecting perhaps instinctual caution on a sensitive topic in the presence of journalists, or possibly genuine insouciance.
“I don’t care about politics because my job has nothing to do with politics,” said Zheng Yue, 27, an interior designer in Chengdu. “And also I can’t solve political problems. Even if I cared a lot about it, it’s no use. I can’t change anything.”
When political issues are injected into their daily lives, as with internet censorship, they always find a workaround so they can see their favorite television shows or news stories they’re interested in.
Xi faces deep socio-economic challenges, and has made it clear that he believes more government control – not less – is what the country needs.
But what if things go sideways, if the China narrative shifts, or if the economy slows significantly, as many economists think is inevitable? What if it hits a brick wall?
“Young Chinese seem to share with young Americans of the 1950s and 1960s a near-unbridgeable generation gap and a huge optimism,” said Michael Pettis, a finance professor at the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University.
But, he said, they are probably ill-prepared for future shocks, despite the experiences and advice of their parents.
Try telling that to Wu.
Born and raised in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province some 700 km (435 miles) inland from Shanghai, she is in many ways emblematic of the “Class of 2012”.
Articulate and cheerful, Wu decided after graduating from university that the English degree she earned was insufficient to pursue her ambitions – so she got a Master’s degree in accounting. She now works in the international settlements department of a foreign bank.
She hasn’t been able to buy property herself, but she recently persuaded her mother to invest some of her life savings in an apartment in a development called “Cambridge City”. The buildings are next to a subway line under construction. Their plan is to flip it in a couple years.
“The appreciation in house values is much bigger than the return on fixed-term deposits at banks,” Wu said. “For sure it won’t go down.”
In terms of job security, Wu also doesn’t seem to worry.
“In my life I‘m not afraid of the future at all,” she said. “I don’t fear change.”
And, she adds, “if some day there’s a big economic crisis and the financial sector falls into recession I think I could go back and be an English teacher.”
Additional reporting by Pei Li, Irene Wang and Yawen Chen in Beijing; Editing by Philip McClellan