The future is bright for the millions who were born in China after the horrors of Tiananmen Square. Their nation is on the march toward more wealth and power, and most don't face hunger and misery like their parents and grandparents. So why are so many urban young people in the world's most populous country so stressed out?
The answer lies in a single word: Pressure.
The twenty-somethings who fill apartments in China's insta-megacities are expected to rise – marry an appropriate spouse, get good jobs, buy apartments and cars, and have children. Nagging relatives pile on to monitor a young person's progress through these mandated stages of youth, and there's pressure from within, too. But not all Chinese can achieve their "Chinese Dream," whether it's to follow the set path or rebel and live in the moment.
"The chasm between the expectations of Chinese young people – their dreams of the lives they'd like to lead – and their financial reality is often bigger, broader and more harrowing than any other such gap in the world," writes Zak Dychtwald, a millennial American from Northern California. He paints a remarkably revealing portrait of China's youngest generations in his fascinating new book, Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World.
The captivating and perceptive "Young China" focuses on young adults in their 20s who were "born into a country brimming with ambition and aspiration." They're firmly ensconced in the world's middle class and "the first modern generations less preoccupied with needs and more involved with wants, in particular 'Who do we want to be?'"
The rush of change in China is stunning. Just a quarter century ago, only about 30 million refrigerators could be found in a nation of 1.1 billion, and the average annual income was around $375. Then came an industrial revolution, a technological revolution, a sexual revolution and, yes, a capitalistic revolution. "Poverty is not socialism," Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared. "To be rich is glorious."
Dychtwald, who now works as a consultant about young China, is a few years shy of 30. But he's already developed the deep curiosity of a world traveler who's more intrigued by people-watching than sightseeing. His personal warmth serves him well as he spends his post-college years poking around China, where he arrives without knowing the language or the etiquette.
It doesn't take him long to learn Chinese, a notoriously difficult language for English-speakers, and understand the society through its words.
"Seven aunts and eight uncles" refers to what he calls a "mythic question-asking task force" determined to know everything about a young person's life from romance and income to exercise habits, vegetable-cleaning practices, and intimate matters. "Apartment slaves" sacrifice so much to own a home that their intensity has prompted a backlash among those who prefer to live in the moment instead of focus on the future. And "test monsters," those obsessed with getting into top schools, devote their lives to mastering tests instead of developing something that China severely lacks – a culture of creativity and innovation.
The new China has not abandoned the old China, however. Not too long ago, the nation's one-child policy intensely focused the attention of families – grandparents, parents, other relatives – on solo children. They, Dychtwald realizes, were the original "little emperors" – kids known for being coddled. Now they have "little emperors" of their own, and the same societal fears about spoiled kids live on.
Even a 5-year-old must face the music – and his relatives – as Dychtwald learns while teaching an English class. Parents, grandparents, and an uncle watch anxiously from an adjoining room as a little boy named Jiangguo in light-up shoes learns English. They eagerly evaluate everything from his social skills to "the way he held a seashell," all a sign of the pressures to come.
In some ways, China's urban young have plenty in common with their American counterparts. They're entranced by their smartphones, televised singing competitions, and endless online listicles. But there are big differences, too.
Chinese young people are much more enthralled by food ("the first luxury, the Ur-indulgence") than Americans. And they're perhaps more reticent about dating and sex, although they're galloping to catch up to the West.
An expert says the Chinese are finally having "sex for fun," and premarital intimacy among the young in cities is tremendously more common than it was just a generation ago. Even the LGBT community is slowly gaining a public profile, thanks in part to awareness of an unlikely and widely respected gay icon – Apple CEO Tim Cook. But there's such pressure to get married and have families that the vast majority of gay Chinese people appear to stay in the closet, and many seem to marry gay people of the opposite sex.
Thanks to online censorship, openness about sexuality has its limits. But young Chinese don't seem very bothered by government oppression, and Western values don't necessarily impress them. Upon hearing about Donald's Trump's jeremiad against corrupt US politicians and media, one young woman shrugs and says, "I guess all governments are the same."
Still, no generations in China's history have been more exposed to the outside world nor, perhaps, more devoted to questioning societal assumptions. These bold, anxious, and driven young people could produce a new kind of Chinese resilience, a new kind of nation – and a new kind of world power.