Chinese youth are living in a world drastically different from a generation ago. In this article, Territory interviews “Barnabas,” one of the executives behind a major research project looking into the lives of Chinese young people today. What motivates young Chinese adults? What challenges are they facing? How should the church respond? Read on to discover how Chinese youth born after 1990 live in modern China.
Because of the length, this article is divided into two parts. This is part one.
The Coming Wave: They Are the Generation of Anxious Nomads
They are the first generation of “digital nomads,” where things online and offline are equally real. Fan Club 1 culture and “shoe flipping”2 are not merely for fun. They are met with big data and artificial intelligence—things that did not exist even a year or two ago—and no one has taken the opportunity to tell them how to understand this. They are like the nomadic tribes of the steppe, with no clear path around them. How should they live? Even the definitions of marriage and gender are being subverted.
As the last year ended and the new year started, if you opened almost any app you could catch discussions about the Post-1990s [young adults] entering their thirties.
In 2013, the New York Times described Post-90s Chinese as “penetrating, with an explosive ability to put things into practice.” They have arrived on stage with never-before-seen individualistic attitudes of “non-mainstream, ‘Martian language,’ ‘Beat,’ and [are] self-centered.” In the summer of 2016, a picture of the “Ge You slouch”3 went viral over the internet, announcing the prevalence of “Apathetic Culture” (sang4) among them. In the winter of 2017, the “Buddhist lifestyle” of “anything is fine” and not putting one’s heart into anything was all the rage. In 2019, they mock themselves as the “balding, single, in debt” cattle of society.
How had they evolved into this fragile, splintered, fickle, self-contradictory mentality? At the time of interviewing Barnabas5 again, the most recent research report, published by the youth culture research company he works at, pointed out that under the combined oppression of modern industrialization, modern mobility, and modern digitization, Post-90s [Chinese] are like nomads, leaving their traditional homes and families, leaving large companies or organizations with clear and stable futures, and also leaving the traditional standards of gender, marriage, and ways of living. On horseback, they are wandering alone on the plains of this age, where risk and opportunity are both doubled, seeking a path and home that belongs to themselves. “Mobility” has become the most distinct characteristic of Post-90s and Post-95s.
Nomads—the rules of survival on the vast plains of this age
Territory: Since our last interview, we hear that you have continued to conduct in-depth investigations regarding Post-90s, Post-95s, and some Post-00s through sociological and anthropological methods. Can you share some discoveries of interest?
Barnabas: Instead of calling it in-depth investigation, it might be better to call it continuous investigation. We are still attempting to begin with the undercurrent of fundamental changes of individualization, hoping to more thoroughly, deeply, and systematically understand the changes among Post-90s, Post-95s, and even Post-00s. We want to see what direction the individualization among the younger generation takes.
We have discovered that this generation of young people are encountering an unprecedented age full of subverted order and accelerated changes. Old paths continually fail, and new things and events appear like the coming tide. They discuss social media, e-commerce, big data, artificial intelligence—these things did not exist five years ago, two years ago, or even one year ago. No one has the experience to tell us what to do after artificial intelligence arrives, and no one knows what unknown things will appear in the next year.
This is very different from the previous few generations. In the past, everyone was within the system. Even though going into business seemed like something new, there were still similar experiences from before or from abroad that could help people understand and put things into practice. Post-90s, however, live in a globalized era. They no longer have elders who can tell them how to understand or discern new things or new circumstances. They can only rely on themselves. At the same time, they see many pressures and contradictions within their own circumstances, such as economic decline, busted bubbles, and unicorn companies that rise up and collapse within a short time. More and more, Post-90s realize that they live on the vast plains of an age where opportunity and risk are continually increasing.
We call them “nomadic youth,” because they are like a nomadic people on the great plains. There is no clear path around them. Whatever direction they head is decided entirely by themselves. They are continually decoupling with the home that serves both as security and as fetters—the education and career paths of the last generation, the standards of gender and marriage—and venturing out to face the unknown world. Nomadic means that this group does not have a stable home. They must continually chase after fertile lands, continually move, maybe even changing daily. Every day, they must consider what they hold in their hand, and what environment they might face. Is it a river ahead of them, or a forest? Are there dangerous animals? A nomad must make decisions daily, to turn right, turn left, or continue forward. To survive, they must make the right decision, otherwise they may die the next day. The rapid changes of the age continually breed anxiety concerning future risks. A nomadic life has become their rule of survival.
We often hear from Post-90s, and even Post-95s that they have entered their mid-life crisis, or even their quarter-life crisis, perhaps because they have seen young people of 35 years old or so being fired for lack of creativity or energy. This causes them to feel a lack of career security.
Young people are continually “migrating” or “moving,” which also means that they are continually engaged in self-iteration, and continually discovering a new self. We have observed a new trend, called “minternship,” which is mid-term internship. This means that young people will leave a given industry, and change to a completely new field to gain completely new skills. To complete the transformation, they might become interns in the new field. Here’s one such case: a barista quit his job at age 30, and instead went on to become a lawyer. For young people, such changes are not strange, because they know that there will be new opportunities at any moment in life, that they will have several careers and develop in several directions in their own lives.
Territory: Compared with other generations, are they more anxious, with less sense of security?
Barnabas: Correct. When faced with uncertain futures, they do not have experience to lean on, or elders to imitate. They are very anxious, with no sense of security. They cannot enjoy the sense of relaxation that their age is entitled to. Anxiety began when they were even younger. Some started worrying about planning for the future and earning money when they were only 10 or 11. They matured too quickly, and are too realistic. This has caused them to feel great pressure whatever choice they face. They think that if they make the wrong decision now, once the mistake is made, the consequences would be extremely serious, and might affect the rest of their lives. In their teens and twenties, they over-analyze every opportunity, and see even small events as very serious. If they want to develop in any direction, or even work on a creative little hack, they must first clearly know what value this brings to the future.
Territory: That is too much pressure. When we were that age we did not have such pressure. Though we were confused about the future, we would try to discover ourselves through things we enjoyed. We did not consider how a small decision made now would affect the rest of our lives.
Barnabas: Right. Post-80s usually say, “let us try it out.” We have our own ideas about the future, but if asked how our current efforts relate to the future, we are not all that clear. We take the attitude of giving it a try first, then take things a step at a time. But they are not willing do so. They feel that facing the future in this way would be silly, not safe. If you ask them to do something they are not sure about, they feel like their future is over.
Diverse standards of success and the deification by Fan Clubs
Territory: We typically think that since Post-90s grew up during a time of rapid economic development in China, with relatively good economic conditions in their families, they will then have more opportunities to develop themselves further, and not simply fight for survival, that things would be easier for them.
Barnabas: The problem is not that simple. A child coming from a middle-class family, or even a wealthier family, may not need to earn as much money, but they may think to themselves, or they may be told that their self-actualization must not be lower than the family’s current social status, that they cannot pull the family’s social status down. As a generation of the rise of the individual, self-actualization is their primary pursuit. Although they realize that their parents’ standards of success, or the world’s standards may not be worth following, what standards can they use to measure themselves? Which standard is the correct one? Can they establish their own standards based on their likes? They are not sure, and so their pressure is even greater.
The standards of success in the past were simple and unified—having a house and car, working at an international company, etc. The current diversity has definitely brought good things, but people forget that diversification also produces new pressures, such as the anxiety of how to choose a standard of success. Some want to start their own business; some want to become an internet celebrity; some seek to be a god in some area; some think that establishing a family and building good relationships is already very successful; and some think it is best to live simply, enjoying the sun on the beach every day. Which standard should one choose? For Post-90s, Post-95s, not only is there the anxiety of choice, but sometimes they think that no standard fits them, and they need to create a new standard. But then, new pressures arrive—do I actually have the ability to create a new standard?
Territory: How do you view the communal cultures of Fan Clubs, Han clothing,6 and shoe flipping among Post-90s and Post-95s?
Barnabas: These are not simply for playing around. We have discovered that anything they are willing to spend time, energy, and even money on, is inevitably backed by rich cultural stories and even history, and have a strong community, therefore creating a unique internet communal culture. It is not simply something young people like. They are the first generation of “digital nomads,” and we need to realize that the world is just as real to them online and offline. In the online world they can become various characters, achieve various identities, not because they are pretending to be someone else, but because these characters and identities represent different dimensions of their selves, and allow them to continue self-exploration. These communal cultures give them a framework that helps them understand themselves, to think of how they should be living, or what principles and values they have. At the same time, they feel that this kind of fun represents a certain ability of theirs.
Territory: The Fan Club culture is no longer what people used to understand as being fans. They have evolved into circles with rules of organization, rights and duties, and clear goals. They act professionally, where one person is responsible for taking photos, editing images, and publishing the images, while another is responsible editing videos, and another is responsible for re-posting and data-management, and yet someone else is responsible for other people’s comments on the celebrity they claim.
Barnabas: Correct. Fan Club culture is not as simple as following a celebrity. They are very proud of their own methods, and these methods bring them happiness, allowing them to find a sense of belonging. Nomads often feel lonely, and a sense of belonging is very attractive to them. At the same time, if they work together, they can boost the popularity of the celebrity they like, and even help him achieve top ranking. This helps the fan feel a sense of power. Influence is very attractive to nomads, and they fear powerlessness. The methods of Fan Clubs help them to feel a sense of power. They can also express themselves through their professional skills, and this increases their sense of worth.
Territory: How should Christians view these communal cultures from a perspective of faith?
Barnabas: I believe that part of the reason the internet has produced such rich communal cultures is due to Satan’s influence. Satan is very clever, and knows what people yearn for. For this generation, they yearn to find meaning beyond simple survival. To prevent them from choosing Christ, Satan has given them many choices and paths, so that they think they can find meaning in life.
Fundamentally speaking, Fan Club culture is a game of seeing who can play god, who can play lord. Their basic model is to worship a celebrity as an idol, to create their own god. At the same time, Fan Club culture is not limited to this. They can also flip things around. They might believe that the celebrity is only their plaything, since they can use their own methods to manipulate the celebrity’s influence, that they are lord, they are god.
These cultures provide us with things such as a sense of belonging, a sense of power and meaning. But as a Christian, the real thing can be found in God. Cultures such as Fan Clubs should not be too attractive to a true Christian.
Territory: I know that there are some actors at your church. How should Christians view celebrities becoming Christians?
Barnabas: If a Christian becomes particularly happy and proud when they see some celebrity becoming a Christian, then I think this is not yet a mature Christian. They need to better understand the meaning of Christian identity and God’s kingdom.
Watch for part 2 next week.
- See “China’s Idol Groups: How to Organize Fans and Adulate People” by Yin Yijun, Sixth Tone, March 7, 2018, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1001875/chinas-idol-groups-how-to-organize-fans-and-adulate-people.
- “Shoe flipping” (炒鞋) refers to the buying and selling of limited edition athletic shoes for profit. See also, “Sneaker Collecting: China’s Sneakerheads Chase 6,600% Returns Flipping Air Jordans” on YouTube.
- See “Actor Wins Lawsuit Over Use of ‘Ge You Slouch’ Meme,” Sixth Tone, February 23, 2018, for more information, https://www.sixthtone.com/ht_news/1001791/actor-wins-lawsuit-over-use-of-ge-you-slouch-meme.
- See also, “Turn Off, Drop Out: Why Young Chinese Are Abandoning Ambition,” by Zeng Yuli, Sixth Tone, June 27, 2017, https://www.sixthtone.com/news/1000407/turn-off%2C-drop-out-why-young-chinese-are-abandoning-ambition.
- “Barnabas” was born in the 1980s and is the chief operating officer of a youth culture research company.
- See “Young people in China are reviving old clothing, and maybe nationalism too” on YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qG8yoCn95KU.
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