Young Chinese enjoy more freedom – of expression, of career choices, of lifestyle alternatives -- than any generation in the country’s history. Yes, the government is increasingly authoritarian – Winnie the Pooh is banned because of his likeness to President Xi Jinping – but economic and technological opportunities have ushered in an era of unprecedented empowerment.
However, the combination of limitations inherent Confucian regimentation and the lack of role models to “show me the way forward” has resulted in underlying anxiety about the future, ones obfuscated by obvious material progress. This article offers four broad strategies to resolve this tension.
Post 95s: A Powerful Economic Force
There are more than 250 million Chinese born after 1995, making this cohort the “fifth largest country” in the world.
They are increasingly independent minded. They do not conform to stereotypes of the “repressed” Chinese. Born in 1998, Cai Xukun, for example, is the leading celebrity amongst the Post 95s. An actor, rapper/singer/song writer and now producer, he is a triple threat of androgynous talent. His posts on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, regularly generate 15 million reposts.
The leading television show is “The Rap of China,” a hip hop competition produced by iQiyi, an online video platform. Within for weeks, the broadcasts accumulated 1.3 billion views. Has progressive street culture has penetrated the soul of New China? (Not really, but it’s a fashion force.)
Economically, the Post 95s shape the Middle Kingdom’s digital economy, challenging the notion of China as a nation of savers. Ten percent purchase online every day. Sixty-four percent visit ecommerce sites every day. Seventy-five percent are open to installment payments, anathema to folks just a several years older.
Expanded Worldview, Broadened Possibilities
Many forces have expanded the Post 95’s world view, whetting an appetite for broadened possibilities. China now boasts a generation that embraces multidimensional identities and multidimensional paths for the future.
Post 95s – across socio-economic strata -- have access to a broad array of online platforms to purchase goods and services to sharpen expertise. From upscale Tmall to bargain-basement Pinduouo, this is the first age cohort to enjoy infinite discovery and choice.
Overseas travel, once a luxury, is increasingly common. In 2019, there are projected to be 1.3 million “academic tourists” from China who will explore dozens of different cultures. According to the Peking University Youth Center, when asked “What you want to most in life,” fifty-one percent replied, “travel around the world.”
The generation gap, once a canyon, has narrowed significantly. Practically all Post 95s grew up as “little emperors,” cherished dumplings, the apple of every parent’s eye and the vessel of hope of the extended family’s future social and financial future. In focus groups, parents – both mothers and fathers -- reject “traditional” – that is, rigid and rule-bound -- parent-child dynamics, insisting they communicate “openly and freely” with offspring and express “guilty feelings” for pushing kids too hard academically. High school and college students often describe relationships with their parents as “harmonious” and “close.”
The cultural tectonic shift in family dynamics is reinforced by a growing realization that success in a global economy requires a diverse set of skills, both intellectual and interpersonal. They include self-expression, an equal balance of IQ and EQ, as well as interests beyond academics.
At the same time, Internet-fueled connectivity has led to lifestyle liberation. The number of passion points – sky diving, pets, yoga, health and wellness, classical music, photography – is exploding. A blogger born in the 80s notes, “If you ever attend a party with the young generation, you will be surprised by how broad their passions are. I once came into a group where I met a lacrosse player, a spider breeder, a regional gaming champion and an astronomy photographer.”
A New Era of Identity Experimentation and Tribal Affiliation
To boot, youth refuse to be confined to a narrow set of interests. They refer to themselves as the “slash generation.” According to a survey conducted by Ctrip, the online travel portal, 85% of Post 95s believe a “modern person should have a multitude of interests.” The admire role models who have achieved just that. Ji Lingchen is a Taobao brand creator/reality TV star/hip hop song writer. Liu Wen is a model/feminist/actor/tailor.
The urge to define one’s niche(s) starts early. In the words of a Beijing sixth grader, “I used to be in a street basketball team in my school and we went to the U.S. to play with students there…But I’m no longer on the team because I find myself more interested in computer programming.”
The combination of the explosion of potential passions and the ease of forging online communities has also transformed the nature of social engagement. Tribes of individuals who share similar niche interests – street culture, body building, hardcore gaming, rooftop climbers, gay choristers. cosplayers – have blossomed. Social lives revolve around gangs of the “like minded.”
Acceptance of non-conformist pursuits has shaped Post 95s’ view of the future. So, too, has the burgeoning of careers that did not exist a few years ago – for example, UX designers. data scientists, short film directors and cloud service analysts. The new generation eschews “conventional” definitions of success – that is, “safe” jobs such as engineering and banking --- and dulled-out corporate hierarchies.
Lu, a 23-year-old woman, expresses typical sentiments: “I don’t walk the normal path. Stable jobs such as government positions will always be options. But I believe I can become really successful fashion designer. Zhang, a 24 recent college graduate, opines, “It’s almost noble to pay the bills by doing what I love. I have friends who earn a living blogging, curating wardrobes, hosting Airbnb travelers, taking care of pets and gaming.”
Chinese Post 95s and Western Millennials: A Convergence?
Looks are deceiving. Although China’s and the West’s new generations use similar vocabulary to express life satisfaction – “living in the now,” “making a living by pursuing my passion” – profound cultural differences remain.
In China, everything is a means to an end. Experiences aren’t simply enjoyed. Nothing is savored and everything requires a payoff, now or in the future.
First, passions need to be converted into social currency that lubricates forward advancement in the future. Young Chinese spend more than three hours per day using WeChat, Tencent’s social media platform, displaying their uniqueness and achievements or comparing achievements with their friends. Broad societal endorsement – everyone from parents and teachers to classmates – is becoming less and less important. But acknowledgement from “the people that matter” – that is, members of the same sub-tribes – is inextricably linked to a positive self-image. (A rule of thumb: if an upload to WeChat fails to generate “likes” by more than 10% of followers, “face” is lost. And it’s a sin to upload a post featuring friends without enhancing it with photo beautification apps.)
Second, tribal affiliation requires a payoff in the form of either skill enhancement. Xu, an independent traveler, asserts, “My friends and I learn from each other’s experiences so we can plan for an even better trip next time.” Qin, the leader of Beijing’s Parkour team, hopes to make an impact recognized by others: “We are making Parkour ore well-known amongst Chinese, letting more and more people benefit from it.” (Parkour is a fitness discipline using movements that developed from military obstacle course training.)
Finally, multidimensional passions and a broad worldview are spoken of as “tools” in “the toolbox of life,” skills or “weaponry” that can be deployed to overcome unexpected hurdles in the future. Breadth trumps depth of expertise.
No Youthful Cultural Revolution
Despite new freedoms enjoyed by China’s Post 95s, China is still a conventional society in which Confucian patriarchic values rule. Western individualism – that is, the encouragement of society individuals to define themselves independent of society – has not taken, and will not, take root.
Across practically all realms of China’s cultural landscape, regimentation reigns. Overt rebellion is still a one-way ticket to the Land of Outcasts.
In 21019, the Communist Party’s propaganda is more heavy-handed than ever, both on- and offline. Winnie the Pooh has been banned due to an unflattering likeness to President Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader who recently eliminated term limits for himself. In his own words, “Supporting our military’s superiority, supporting the government and loving the people is the unique political advantage of our Party and our army. The unbreakable bonds between the army, Party and masses an important magic weapon as we move from victory to victory.”
In fact, the Party’s firm iron grip on affairs of states may be fueling a new generation of knee-jerk nationalism. According to the China Youth and Children Research Center, seventy per cent of Post 90s think “Western countries always use double standards to blame China for their own weakness.” And eighty per cent believe, “China will become better and better without having to adopt Western systems.”
Corporate hierarchies remain as rigid as ever. Even the hip avoid confrontation with superiors. Until his retirement last year, Jack Ma ruled Alibaba, China’s high-tech ecommerce behemoth, with an iron fist. And he will continue to wield power from behind the throne as he leads charities as a quintessential Confucian benevolent dictator.
Despite an official desire for more creativity, China’s education system has not been reformed. Admittance into prestigious universities still depends entirely on performance on the gaokoa, the dreaded college entrance exam which focuses on memorized facts rather than conceptual agility.
Success is still rooted in relationships (guanxi) as much as individual initiative. The well-connected and monied gao fu shuai (tall, rich and handsome) and bai fu mei (pale, rich and beautiful) have infinitely more opportunities to than ordinary folk. In fact, the “opportunity gap” is so deep, young netizens who feel left behind in the new economy have created a craze in Chinese slang by inventing a new character – qiou, literally a combination of “poor,” “ugly” and “dirt.” It’s an ironically-proud expression of “loser-hood.”
Although understatement is a marker of sophistication, luxury brands remain a primary means of status projection. (According to HSBC, the Chinese now consume almost 40% of luxury goods globally.)
Children are still expected to return home for Chinese New Year to pay respect to their parents. (In February 2018, more than three billion train trips were taken.)
Downtown “marriage markets” for parents worried about their adult child’s single status continue to flourish.
The Persistence of Anxiety
According to QQ Big Data, fully sixty percent of Post 95s want to pursue careers as an “internet celebrity,” suggesting a deep ambivalent about adulthood’s harsh realities.
The Post 95’s, the oldest of whom are still in their early to mid-twenties, have not fully entered “the system.” However, an undercurrent regarding future stability is never far from the surface. (The recent drop in auto purchases – today a prerequisite for entry into the middle class -- may be a canary in the coal mine.) Yes, they enjoy “dream years” brimming with lifestyle and identity choice. But they know they can’t escape long-term responsibilities – marriage, children, planning for the future and professional success within a still-regimented society.
China’s unbroken top-down, patriarchic rigidity results in two dimensions of uncertainty – one structural, the other psychological.
A Stagnant Business Model. First, stability, always the platform on which progress is constructed, is not taken for granted. Despite admiration for Xi Jinping as well as succor from the continued growth of personal income, China’s economy remains unreformed. The country has not yet shifted from an investment- and export-led model to one driven by consumption and a mature service sector.
The state increasingly dominates key sectors, including high-tech. Scale and low price and remain the pillars of China Inc’s business model. Competition is “managed,” focused within, not between, organizations such as Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Innovation does not bubble up. It is, as always, meticulously, incrementally orchestrated in a top-down manner.
The property sector continues to play an outsized role in economic output, leading to unaffordable housing. Prices are more than twenty times annual income in Beijing and Shanghai, forcing extended families to pool resources to buy apartments.
One highly retweeted post: “I worry about something. Girls in China are more and more materialistic. With a house, my girlfriend will not marry me. My parents can’t help me either. I need to get a good job with high pay. That’s what I totally want.”
A Dearth of Role Models. Second, due to the recency of career and lifestyle choice, Post 95’s have few mentors who have thrived over time.
Each year, more than ten million students graduate from mostly mediocre universities. The vast majority of new hires do not have the skills to compete in a diversified global economy. In the words of one 26-year-old, “Web operations is a very new job. You can’t learn it from school. You can’t learn it from your boss. So who can I learn from? I can only try and explore everything from scratch.
Many passions can only be learned online. One fitness coach bemoans, “When I started to learn about high intensity workouts, there was no one doing this in my home town.”
A Master Tension
The juxtaposition of an explosion of new opportunities and anxiety fueled by an unreformed economy and a dearth of role models leads to a new “master tension” confronted by Post 95s: “I want to do and be what I love, but the path ahead is filled with unknowns.”
Brands that resolve this dilemma by providing tools or encouragement to leap into the unknown will touch the hearts – and earn the loyalty -- of Post 95s. This article offers four ways marketers can achieve this: 1) dramatize “the now,” 2) enable “cross-tribe” mash ups, 3) advocate forging “my own path,” and 4) “rally my crew.”
Dramatize the Now
The Post 90s dream of living their passion, one day. But prospects are limited due to a tradition-bound, regimented culture. Marketers should provide immediate emotional release from anxiety of the future by celebrating the spontaneity and richness of everyday moments.
TikTok, known as Douyin on the Mainland, is a hugely popular social media app for creating and sharing videos as well live broadcasting. It was launched only two years ago. The platform’s 250 million Chinese users, eighty percent of whom are between the ages of 18 and 29, are drawn by a rallying cry to “capture beautiful moments.” In one evocate film, Douyin exhorts, “At a place for from home, or on our way home, on a busy street, or just around you, or at place without you…In the spotlight, in other’s peoples’ eyes, at the next moment, in each of your moments, in each of your stories, at each ending of your stories, at a new beginning…no matter where you are, beauty is right in front of you.
Airbnb, ranked 19th in Prophet’s 2018 China Brand Relevance Index, encourages travelers to just “be there” to absorb “music in the air, slow living in a fast city, the simple joy of green.” When venturing to foreign destinations, it moves even deeper into “the now “by inviting explorers to “live there.” “Don’t go to Paris, don’t tour Paris and, please don’t do Paris. Live in Paris. Don’t go to New York, Don’t go to Tokyo. Live in the East Village, live in Shinagawa. Wherever you go, live there, even it’s just for a night.”
At the end of 2017, Absolut, China’s leading vodka, launched a hundred New Year’s Eve events in a hundred cities by fusing spontaneity with a twist of empowerment. The brand invited consumers to submit concepts to “throw your own party, because now’s the time for fun.” The gatherings drew more than 10,000 participants, and 4.9 million online viewers. Absolut also provided ingredients so young consumers could express their passing moods through novel cocktails – for example, Absolut Bitchy, Absolut (Hip) Hopping and Absolut Twink Time.
Enable Cross-Tribe Mash-Ups
The lack of role models who have achieved success by pursuing their dreams is a hurdle. Post 95s, therefore, embrace opportunities to learn more about the world while enhancing their emotional quotient. The appeal of getting to know different “tribes” is rooted in a desire to broaden worldviews, a competitive weapon in an unpredictable world. Brands, therefore, have an opportunity to deepen affinity by encouraging “cross tribe mash ups.”
Supreme, the American skateboarding shop, enjoys huge popularity amongst Chinese youth. Coolness is driven by “collabs” (collaborations), between unexpected tribes – for example. Rimowa, a totem of the travel set; Louis Vuitton, the go-to brand of luxury connoisseurs; and even Rolex, a badge the achievement-oriented.
Xianyu, Alibaba’s second-hand app, enables user to create “fish ponds” based on various interests – geek technologists, fashion stylistas, antiquity connoisseurs, etc. – and encourage users to join “more groups for more learning.”
In China, WeWork, the shared office space which, in China, positions itself as a multination melting pot, has launched the “Creator Awards” to celebrate “unexpected creations from all walks of life.” In the entry call to action, the brands preaches, “Work is to create. Everyone – from no matter what walk of life -- has the power to become a creator, to do the impossible, to innovate, to blend things I know and see and to make a new thing from the inspirations of others different from you. Performing arts, non-profit, community center, business venture. Who will your next big idea come from?
“Forge my Own Path”
Brands can be advocates – empathetic cheer leaders – of taking the leap to do what you love. In the United States, students are encouraged to “do what makes you happy” before primary school. In China, “following your dream” is still “Eve’s apple,” a tempting desire but filled with dangers, particularly lost face. The Middle Kingdom does not reward failure.
In 2018, SKII, the Procter & Gamble popular cosmetics brand, lowered the age of their target market from women in their late twenties and early thirties to youth in their late teens to mid-twenties. It also evolved its messaging from “having the courage to challenge destiny” to one that’s more assertive: “Be the person you decide to be.” All references to societal pressure has disappeared: “If I said it, know I mean it…you made a mess and I ain’t cleanin’ it. When you come, we just leave. When are you going to live it up?”
Nike pushes even children to define themselves from within: “You think we’re just kids? That we need protection? In your eyes, you expect us to behave. Don’t underestimate us. Don’t call me baby.” Given China’s inherent conservatism, advertising still avoids overt rebellion. But urging self-possession amongst kids is, for the market, a sign of things to come.
Yuedan, the Chinese version of Task Rabbit, is an online platform that transmutes sentiment into action – or better still, cold cash. “Video game leveling, shopping curation, emceeing, make up artistry…It’s doesn’t matter what your skill are. Monetize yourself!” WeWork encourages young people to make a living through their passions with activities including investor introductions, “pitch nights,” and meet ups between different start-up communities. Tencent’s Tmall holds a popular online-to-offline “Makers Festival,” a showcase for Millennial entrepreneurs to demonstrate creations and exchange ideas. The event’s tagline: “Everyone is a Creator.”
“Rally My Crew”
Again, American-style individualism still doesn’t exist. Social currency is the fuel of forward advancement. To bolster hope in an unpredictable future, brands can provide platforms – stages – to inspire others and gain approval from people who “matter” – that is, people in like-minded tribes.
Adidas’ “My Girls” campaign invites “super users” to encourage followers to participate in sports, with on- and offline events leaders can organize. Xiao Hong Shu, or Little Book, is an ecommerce site that merchandises upscale goods from around the world. Its social platform enables anyone to be an online opinion leader on topics ranging from “the most inexpensive way to treat acne” to “the latest collaborations between street wear and High Street.”
Zhihu allows ordinary folks to attract followers by spreading wisdom. The platform is question-and-answer website. Questions are posed, answered, edited and organized by its community of users, many of whom have amassed significant followings. Mouse Li, for example, has attracted 346,000 followers due to his expertise in second-hand auto purchases. Kaiser, an offline computer programmer, boasts 500,000 followers by dint of insight into traditional Chinese art and literature.
Due to online connectivity, growing incomes and lifestyle liberation, Post 95s enjoy more opportunities than any generation in history. However, anxiety lurks beneath a frothy surface. Confucian society is still regimented and patriarchic. The lack of role models to “show me the way” is buzz kill.
Post 95s suffer from pervasive conflict between the new possibility to “do and be what I love” and timeless reality that “the path ahead is filled with uncertainties.”
Brands can resolve the gulf between aspiration and reality by providing tools. Marketers should ask themselves if they have: a) maximized relevance by resolving this tension by developing products with a clear brand purpose, b) refined a communication framework that dramatizes product uniqueness and c) created touch point experiences that forge intimacy between brand and consumer.
This article offers four ways to achieve these goals: 1) dramatize the now, 2) enable cross-tribe mash ups, 3) advocate forging my own path, and 4) providing the means to rally my crew.