The post-’80s generation is directionless and unhappy but unlikely to rebel.
SHANGHAI – For two days, Rocky had been playing video games in the tiny apartment he shares with three other men in Shanghai, a city of 23 million. He left only once, to buy food. The games “help me relax,” he said. “It helps me escape. I feel so tired.”
In June, the 32-year-old quit his job as a salesman with a traditional Chinese medicine company. His monthly wage was a meager $400. Rocky has had nearly a dozen jobs since he graduated from college a decade ago. His mother, who lived in a poor village in Shandong, a province a few hours north of Shanghai by train, died in May.
“I feel so guilty. She worked so hard to try to give me everything, and I could never do anything for her,” said Rocky, who requested that only his English name be used because he’s embarrassed by his poverty. “I feel so lost. I am such a loser. There is such a huge gap between my reality and my dreams. I feel so old.”
Rocky is part of a generation in China known as the post-’80s. Born in the 1980s, they’ve seen rapid change as China moved from a Maoist state to a market-oriented economy characterized by rampant consumerism and unprecedented inequality. Because of the country’s one-child policy, many of them are only children. They’re the first generation to grow up with the Internet and, in turn, have had more access to information — and perhaps greater exposure to individual censorship.
They’ve also had more access to higher education, yet their schooling has been in a system infused with an ideological curriculum that the Chinese Communist Party strengthened after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where prodemocracy demonstrations were crushed. They’re vastly different from their parents.
Chinese society has long been worried about the post-’80s and what will become of them. They’ve been called spoiled, irresponsible, materialistic, lazy and confused.
“They are described as China’s lost generation,” said Minna Jia, who researched the age group while obtaining her doctorate at the University of Southern California. “People say this generation only cares about money, about themselves.”
That sentiment was given voice in May, when the People’s Daily, the newspaper that’s considered the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial that had little good to say about the country’s young adults.
“Why has a generation that should be full of vigor and vitality become lethargic?” the newspaper asked. While it acknowledged that young people face overwhelming pressures, such as finding jobs, buying homes and taking care of their parents, it also blamed them for not having direction in their lives.
“They stepped into a highly mobile society but meanwhile suffer spiritual confusion,” the editorial said.
Chinese in their 20s and 30s were outraged. On social media they denounced the editorial — and the government policies they think have put them in this spot. Their malaise isn’t something they’ve generated themselves, they complained, but the byproduct of the Communist Party’s social and economic engineering initiatives gone awry.
“We have four elderly people to take care of and one child to raise. Our children have no access to safe milk or fair education. High real estate prices make us homeless,” said one comment on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. “We want to look up into the starry sky, but who has clouded it?”
“We have no house, no car, no money,” another Internet user said. “No rights of speaking. No chances. We don’t have anything we long for. Therefore, we have become silent and helpless.”
Despite the widespread unhappiness, few expect the post-’80s to demand political change.
“They very much support the government in many ways,” said Liu Fengshu, author of the book “Urban Youth in China: Modernity, the Internet and the Self.” “I think people will protest if the situation really goes beyond their tolerance level, but it is very hard now to say how much young people can bear. They are very nationalistic.”