SHANGHAI — For two days, Rocky had been playing video games in the tiny apartment he shares with three other men in Shanghai, a city of 23 million. He left only once, to buy food. The games “help me relax,” he said. “It helps me escape. I feel so tired.”
In June, the 32-year-old quit his job as a salesman with a traditional Chinese medicine company. His monthly wage was a meager $400. Rocky has had nearly a dozen jobs since he graduated from college a decade ago. His mother, who lived in a poor village in Shandong, a province a few hours north of Shanghai by train, died in May.
“I feel so guilty. She worked so hard to try to give me everything, and I could never do anything for her,” said Rocky, who requested that only his English name be used because he’s embarrassed by his poverty. “I feel so lost. I am such a loser. There is such a huge gap between my reality and my dreams. I feel so old.”
Rocky is part of a generation in China known as the post-’80s. Born in the 1980s, they’ve seen rapid change as China moved from a Maoist state to a market-oriented economy characterized by rampant consumerism and unprecedented inequality. Because of the country’s one-child policy, many of them are only children. They’re the first generation to grow up with the Internet, and in turn, have had more access to information – and perhaps greater exposure to individual censorship.
They’ve also had more access to higher education, yet their schooling has been in a system infused with an ideological curriculum that the Chinese Communist Party strengthened after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, where pro-democracy demonstrations were crushed. They’re vastly different from their parents.
Chinese society has long been worried about the post-’80s and what will become of them. They’ve been called spoiled, irresponsible, materialistic, lazy and confused. “They are described as China’s lost generation,” said Minna Jia, who researched the age group while obtaining her doctorate at the University of Southern California. “People say this generation only cares about money, about themselves.”
That sentiment was given voice in May, when the People’s Daily, the newspaper that’s considered the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, published an editorial that had little good to say about the country’s young adults.
"Why has a generation that should be full of vigor and vitality become lethargic," the newspaper asked. While it acknowledged that young people face overwhelming pressures, such as finding jobs, buying homes and taking care of their parents, it also blamed them for not having direction in their lives.
“They stepped into a highly mobile society but meanwhile suffer spiritual confusion,” the editorial said.
Chinese in their 20s and 30s were outraged. On social media they denounced the editorial – and the government policies that they think have put them in this spot. Their malaise isn’t something they’ve generated themselves, they complained, but the byproduct of the communist party’s social and economic engineering initiatives gone awry.
“We have four elderly people to take care of and one child to raise. Our children have no access to safe milk or fair education. High real estate prices make us homeless,” said one comment on Sina Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. “We want to look up into the starry sky, but who has clouded it?”
The high real-estate prices have made it impossible to buy, or even rent, a home. As a result, many 20- and 30-somethings are living together in cramped apartments in big cities. In Beijing, thousands of unemployed college graduates, mostly from the post-’80s generation, live in urban slums known as “ant villages.”
Owning a home is a virtual prerequisite for marriage here, especially for men. Yet skyrocketing prices make it hard to buy apartments in metropolises such as Beijing and Shanghai, so many young people are postponing getting married.
Meanwhile, the surge of educated young people entering the labor market has made competition fierce for jobs and has depressed salaries, which often are barely enough to cover basic necessities.
As only children, the post-’80s generation also must shoulder the burden of caring for aging parents and grandparents, not just their own, but also their spouses’.
Endemic corruption and nepotism have meant that those in their generation whose families have powerful connections and wealth are privy to the best opportunities. The food that the post-’80s eat is unsafe, and the environment they live in is polluted.
“We have no house, no car, no money,” another Internet user said. “No rights of speaking. No chances. We don’t have anything we long for. Therefore, we have become silent and helpless.”
“If I want to buy a house, I can’t eat or drink for 30 years,” wrote Zuoyeben, a popular social critic. “I belong to the post-’80s generation. How is it possible for me not to be dispirited? It’s enough . . . accomplishment that I’m somehow still alive!”
Interviews with 20-somethings confirm their unhappiness.
Xia Tianyi, 25, works at a university in Shanghai. She said most of her friends “admit they have some sort of psychological problems.” She also said that many of them would like to leave China.
“Our childhood was very pure and simple,” Xia said. “When we grow up, the changes that took place happened overnight. Everybody feels so anxious and doesn’t know what to do. We can’t escape an environment where everyone talks about money.”
Wang Wei, 27, who works for a local government in Nantong, a coastal city near Shanghai, had a similar downcast view.
“I don’t think the situation will get better,” she said. At night, she works a shift at a Kentucky Fried Chicken to help make ends meet. She said she couldn’t get a promotion in her government work because “it is very clear that those who get promotions all have family connections. Opportunities are not really fair for capable people.”
“All we can do is accept the way things are,” she said.
Despite the widespread unhappiness, few expect the post-’80s to demand political change.
Zhu Dake, an outspoken cultural critic and professor at Shanghai’s Tongji University, said the Tiananmen crackdown had crushed hopes for democracy, freedom and justice while stricter ideological education and the rapid expansion of free market reforms replaced it with a cynical outlook.
“They lost the pursuit of their beliefs,” Zhu said. “Materialism became the priority, and they came to understand that beliefs are meaningless. The result is that they became the most pragmatic and materially oriented generation because they were left no other choice.”
“They were born in the wrong age,” he said. “They are the sacrifice of history.”
“They very much support the government in many ways,” said Liu Fengshu, the author of the book “Urban Youth in China: Modernity, the Internet and the Self.” “I think people will protest if the situation really goes beyond their tolerance level, but it is very hard now to say how much young people can bear. They are very nationalistic.”
Mandy Zi is an example of much that the disaffected resent. The 27-year-old works for an international company in Shanghai, hopes to buy an apartment with her boyfriend soon and can afford luxury products. Her father was in the military and her mother worked for a state-owned bank. When she was young, she studied abroad.
She acknowledges the dark side of China today, but she remains an optimist.
“Things happen a lot here in China that sometimes exceed our ethical standards, and I think it is just getting more and more outrageous. So many scandals, so much unfairness,” she said. “Still, I think economic growth gives us a lot of opportunities. China is still a place of hope. That is my conclusion.”
Farrar is a McClatchy special correspondent.