Why the young Chinese generation is becoming “old”

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By Wei Axiao

NANJING, China — Once known as the “lost generation,” the members of the post-90s generation in China have now been jokingly labeled “middle-aged,” or even “old people.” Why are these millennials being compared to the elderly?

One possible explanation is their lifestyle. If you observe young Chinese people, you will be surprised by the popularity of thermoses in offices or even classrooms. It is not uncommon to notice dates, goji berries, tea and dried monk fruit in them, all of which are reputed to bring health benefits. Only in rare cases do young people drink coffee. They tend to choose healthy snacks such as nuts and dates. For leisure time, massages, hot springs and beauty parlors are in great demand, and similarly, it is in fashion to hit the gym and exercise. The post-90s generation favors healthcare products such as hair tonics, face masks and health foods, accounting for over 50 percent of all health product consumption as documented in the 2017 AliHealth Report. All of the above paints a portrait of this generation of young people as living a health-obsessed lifestyle that is traditionally associated with the older population.

However, despite seeming to care about health so much, this generation is fond of going to bed late, which is far from healthy. Statistics from the 2017 Chinese Young People Sleep Report demonstrate that young people typically prioritize work over receiving enough sleep when they are confronted with this trade-off. The percentage of young people who go to sleep by a regular time is around 3.4 percent, far lower than the approximately 44.1 percent who work late into the night. Moreover, the data shows that those in the high-income group with a monthly salary of 5000 RMB or higher get better quality sleep than those with a salary lower than 5000 RMB. Many factors contribute to this unhealthy deviation from the circadian rhythm, but around 77.4 percent of Chinese young people attribute it to overwhelming pressure from studying or work. A white paper on the health of Chinese white-collar workers reveals that the proportion of white-collar workers in an overworked state is close to 60 percent.

This younger generation is forced to consider their health because of their exhausting lifestyles. But why? Perhaps demographics can give us some clues. China’s post-90s generation are now 20 to 29 years old. This is a generation that has gone through the one-child policy and China’s educational reform, the New Curriculum Standard for Compulsory Education and High School. A large population and limited occupational positions inevitably exacerbate competition between peers. Young people fall into a state of anxiety about not being good enough, not having a high degree of education or not earning a high salary, and consequently, they work increasingly hard to pursue higher degrees, more certificates and better internships.

There is a deeper cause behind the anxiety, especially for young men: rising prices, especially housing, which play a well-documented role in contemporary Chinese society. This phenomenon is important because owning a house is now tightly connected with one’s household registration, social status, access to elementary education, living environment and marriage. Meeting the threshold for marriage has been hard for young Chinese men, especially those who are not from rich families, given that purchasing a house is considered an expectation or even a responsibility for Chinese men as part of marriage. According to the 2017 China Housing Price Network the ratio of housing prices to income in China ranges from 6.2 to 1 to 46.6 to 1, much higher than the World Bank’s ratio recommendation of 5 to 1 or the United Nations’ 3 to 1. The pressure on young men due to the one-child policy and the “4+2+1” family structure it created also cannot be underestimated. By the end of 2016, the sex ratio in China was 104.98 men for every 100 women, which adds pressure on young men who are seeking spouses.

Nonetheless, pressure on males is not the whole story. No one is exempt from social stress, including young women. The reform of the Chinese Marriage Law, particularly the property distribution terms, put young Chinese women into an unprecedented situation in which they cannot rely on a husband. Chinese women are no longer entitled to half of their husband’s property when they get divorced. Thus, women of all ages must work hard to ensure that they have their own house or assets, especially if their parents cannot afford them. The development of feminism in China and the improvement of women’s educational opportunities has also encouraged Chinese women to earn their own income, and they are more willing to rely on themselves rather than a wealthy husband for financial security. There is a saying about aspirant young Chinese women “ao zui wan de ye, yong zui gui de yan shuang,” or “work overnight and earn more money to pay for the most expensive eye cream.” The decline of the national marriage registration rate — which shrunk by 7 percent in 2017 — reflects all of these changes.

Contemporary Chinese society is foisting immense competition and pressure on the post-90s generation. Exhausted by overwhelming study or work, young adults care more about their health and try to make up for their irregular lifestyles. We cannot just blame this generation for their lifestyle, as everyone in society is expected to embrace stressful social environments. However, society bears responsibility for its citizens. Dispelling the cloud of overwhelming social tensions and stresses — such as low average wages and excessively high housing prices — may be a good start.


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