Peoples of China

Understanding and Engaging with the Post-Eighties Generation


The role of Christian expatriates engaged in China ministry is changing, in part, because the worldview of the people with whom they work has shifted. Accordingly, one must adapt to this emerging worldview as suggested in the modern political slogan: “与时俱进” (“Move with the times”).

In recent years, there has been an increasing awareness of distinct, generational groups in China. Some say that since the 1970s, about every five years a different generation emerges holding divergent views on core values and beliefs. Specific titles have entered common parlance to refer to those born in each period. This article will discuss key features of one of these generational groups, the “post-eighties” (80后). Then, briefly, it will suggest how expatriates can effectively recalibrate and better engage with this group.

As the term suggests, people who are post-eighties were generally born during the 1980s, although those born at the end of the 70s are sometimes also included. The post-eighties are the earliest generation of those who became known in the West as the “Little Emperors” of China. Broadly speaking, they were typically raised in a close family environment where all adults—parents and grandparents—concentrated their attention on their only heir.  Accordingly, the perceptions of family relationships are a key feature of this group.

Key Family Relationships

Grandparents

In terms of emotional attachments, post-eighties adults are closest to their grandparents. From infancy, a majority of these babies were raised exclusively by their paternal grandparents until they reached the age at which they could attend primary school, typically seven or eight years old. Later, returning to live with their parents, post-eighties children were often accompanied by their grandparents who would relocate in order to continue living with them until they finished high school.

A number of factors combined to produce this situation. To begin with, it was a very pragmatic arrangement. As retirees, grandparents usually had sufficient time to provide care in contrast to the child’s parents who were typically employed in fulltime jobs, six days per week. Such arrangements also satisfied traditional and cultural expectations that assumed grandparents would assist with the care of their grandchildren, especially the progeny of their own son(s). In most cases, there were also important financial incentives as well.  By leaving their children in the care of their grandparents, young parents could avoid paying professional childcare fees; grandparents often considered these savings to represent a concrete, financial contribution from them to the young family. Lastly, following the introduction of the strict one-child family planning policy—the post-eighties babies being the first generation born under these rules—insecurities which normally surround childbirth were further intensified. As a result, grandparents often became emotionally entangled even during the early stages of pregnancy and found it difficult to detach themselves following the birth of their grandchild.

The post-eighties children had little influence over their situation until they were well into early adulthood. By that time, they found their emotional attachment to their grandparents stronger than that to their own parents. Crucially now, the post-eighties generation is attempting to juggle personal career ambitions alongside satisfying filial responsibilities to aging grandparents. When these priorities inevitably clash, these adults face intense emotional turmoil, although personal career ambitions tend to finally dominate.  

Parents and children

In contrast to the strong emotional bond with their grandparents, the post-eighties generation often struggles to feel a significant attachment to their parents. It could be said that this situation is the unfortunate result of their parents’ absence during the crucial years of their childhood. As already mentioned, it was their live-in grandparents who cooked, bathed, and accompanied them daily. Parents, on the other hand, could not be counted on for meaningful interaction on a daily basis (with the exception of enforcing discipline) as their “work units” (单位) all too often expected them to fulfil long working hours. Although parents of the post-eighties generation may have slept under the same roof as their children, in practice, their circumstances often resulted with them living as DINKs—“double-income-no-kids”—parents.

Despite the lack of intimacy between them, post-eighties adults will often continue to live with their parents, if they can. This extended parental dependence is an arrangement of convenience rather than an emotional attachment. Consistent with the upbringing they had under their grandparents, the post-eighties are largely accustomed to being looked after in their daily living.

Childcare arrangements for the children of post-eighties do not appear to have changed in any significant way. Much like their own parents, post-eighties parents also tend to deposit their infant children with the child’s grandparents. In many cases, these parents will take the initiative to request this arrangement. Alternatively, the parents of the post-eighties may also ask that their grandchildren be given to them. In any case, many post-eighties seem to presume that their parents will continue to support and care for them into retirement on a frequent, if not daily, basis. The recently coined term “generation leech” (啃老族) denotes this living arrangement in which post-eighties adults continue to depend upon the financial and practical care of their parents.

Spouse or partner

Perhaps the greatest personal challenge among post-eighties young adults is their relationship with a spouse or partner. Popular media in China is frequently awash with reports on the widespread phenomenon of “flash marriages” (闪婚) and “flash divorces” (闪离). These are self-evident terms coined by this generation to denote marital relationships that form and/or disintegrate with breath-taking speed. There are also the modern derogatory terms “male/female leftovers” (剩男,剩女) which refer to the increasing number of post-eighties individuals who remain single into their thirties with very little prospects of marriage.

Why do close personal relationships seem to be a particular challenge for this generation? It is worth noting that many post-eighties themselves lacked a healthy role model in their parents’ marriages for which divorce was preferred but ultimately impossible due to previously insurmountable social and legal constraints. As a result, they have often borne witness to their parents’ dysfunctional marriage —or worse, their extramarital affairs—in excruciating detail. On the other hand, the emotional intimacy with which they are most familiar is between them and their grandparents. However, when this relationship model becomes the ideal upon which the post-eighties base their search for a partner, it creates unrealistic expectations in relationships and results in insecurity, querulousness, and an unwillingness to undertake long-term commitment.

Key Spokespersons

The post-eighties have produced a number of important celebrity spokespersons who articulate the unique challenges they face. Indeed, the term “post-eighties” was first coined within literary circles referring to a new generation of young authors who became highly popular bloggers in the early days of the Internet. Among them, three are particularly worth mentioning.

Han Han (韩寒) and Guo Jingming (郭敬明) are two male authors who, despite their similar ages, hold opposing social values. On the one hand, Han Han critically parodies the disjunction between the daily reality that people experience and its official representation in the state media. In contrast, Guo Jingming is a talented and flamboyant writer who utilizes the dazzling and sensational image of a more confident modernized China and glories in its superficiality. Both command a huge following of avid readers through their blogs and published works as well as many fans closely imitating their fashion and personal hobbies.

Li Yuchun (李宇春) is a female singer whose rise to fame began on one of China’s earliest talent shows. Since then, she is best known for her androgynous style whereby she presents herself on stage and in public as a spirited young man who uses make-up and feminine accessories. Li Yuchun’s contribution has been to affirm to China’s youth that being an masculine female or an effeminate male is quite fashionable and desirable. Indeed, much of the recent attitudinal shift among China’s youth toward tolerating and welcoming homosexuality and LGBT culture can be traced to the rise of Li Yuchun’s public profile.


Li Yuchun (李宇春)

Key Psychological Characteristics

Loneliness

In light of their somewhat cloistered family circumstances, it is unsurprising that post-eighties were well acquainted with loneliness during their childhoods. Moreover, with the exception of occasional visits with cousins, classmates, or other children their own age, post-eighties children typically had few options but to play alone indoors under the supervision of their grandparents. Of course, such a situation is hardly unique to China. Nevertheless, the sense of social isolation they felt has been further exacerbated by the national context wherein community organized events have been typically discouraged, restricted, or banned outright. Those living in the cities probably fared even worse due to the widespread practice by families to remain self-confined in their apartments without regular interaction with either neighbours or the family network.

Self-centeredness

The self-centeredness of the post-eighties generation is a characteristic that is best understood silhouetted against previous older traditions. Up until relatively recently, children occupied the outer periphery of the family circle and possessed a personal value considerably lower than that of an adult. Their individual needs and demands were deemed subordinate to those of the family and secondary to elderly members or the family head.

A sudden reversal of this situation followed the introduction, in the late seventies, of the one-child policy to restrict population growth. Post-eighties children quickly became a “rarity” within family networks and their status dramatically increased from a very young age. This was particularly evident among male progeny who are especially valued for their unique role in bearing the family name—a point of considerable concern to those grandparents who maintain traditional beliefs about the importance of ancestral lineage.

Faced with the prospect of only a single heir, family elders and parents alike sought to satisfy the demands of the post-eighties child and concentrated their attention and limited family finances on fostering the child’s potential for future success. To this extent, the widespread sense of self-centeredness among this generation is not so much personal as it is a social characteristic fostered from early childhood. Subsequent difficulties frequently have arisen as the “one-child” becomes an adult. They quickly find out that their needs and demands will not be unconditionally met by those outside their immediate family. Their disillusionment is further magnified as they are surrounded by their own peers, many of whom share the same self-centered expectations.

Suggestions for Christian Expatriates

Mixed, “all-age” congregations are relatively uncommon in China. Instead, unofficial house churches are typically organized along generational lines. As members of the post-eighties generation increasingly undertake leadership roles, Christian expatriates can help them face their unique challenges. Following are suggestions for doing this.

  • As outlined above, post-eighties are often less mature than their age suggests due to their continued dependence upon family members or their seniors. They require a great deal of mentoring and could also benefit from opportunities to initiate or organize meetings under the supervision of a facilitator. They need to become independent, responsible and encouraged to personally own their leadership roles—not least in order to counter a lack of commitment.
  • Those working with post-eighties should be aware that the problem of self-centeredness counters the Christian notion of self-sacrifice and the cost of discipleship.
  • Post-eighties are particularly adept at compartmentalizing their lives in situationally specific ways. Knowing their families and peers and becoming a family friend provides a more complete view of their lives and allows one to become a “holistic friend.”
  • Given their lack of exposure to healthy marriages during childhood, post-eighties Christians struggle to build meaningful relationships in adulthood. It would be very valuable to offer guided assistance to understand biblical manhood and womanhood.
  • Post-eighties Christians need assistance to critically evaluate culture—especially popular Western culture—from a biblical perspective. More than any previous generation, they are familiar with Western culture and materialism. However, for many of them, there is no clear distinction between the West and the Christian faith.

Summary

The role of Christian expatriates engaged in China ministry is changing. Because the worldview of the people with whom they work has shifted, understanding and adaptation are needed. Two pressing needs for post-eighties Christians include:

  • The urgent need for in-depth discipleship and clear expository teaching for Christian leaders.
  • The need for role models who can demonstrate genuine holiness, true spirituality, and willingness to personally mentor them.
Header image credit: Forlorn by sherrah sherrah via Flickr.
Text image credit: js.people.cn

R and J

R and J have spent a number of years living and working in China with local believers. They currently reside outside China and teach biblical studies to graduate students at a small divinity school.View Full Bio