China's "Gen Y" Bucks Tradition

by Raksha Arora, Business and Economy Editor

Youngest Chinese reject Confucian work ethic, embrace West

China's one-child policy has resulted in a generation of "little emperors" -- many Chinese between the ages of 18 and 24 grew up as the only child in their household. Data from the most recent Gallup Poll of China suggest that the youngest Chinese adults, especially those in China's growing urban sector, are bucking the imperialist and collectivist traditions of China's past and defining themselves as individuals. Could this "Gen Y" age group be better termed the "me generation"?

It's My Life …

Never mind the Confucian work ethic, young Chinese are more inclined toward a lifestyle devoted to self-actualization rather than the more traditional "work hard and get rich" mentality. When presented with a list of philosophies toward life and asked which one comes closest to their own, 37% of urban Gen Y Chinese choose "Don't just think about money or fame, but live a life that suits your tastes." Another 15% believe in living for today, as characterized by the response, "Live each day as it comes, cheerfully, without worrying."

The contrast between urban Gen Y Chinese and their counterparts in the 25 and older category is most stark when looking at proponents of the "work hard and get rich" approach to life. Only 22% of Gen Y Chinese subscribe to this view, compared with 37% of urban Chinese aged 25 and older.

… And I Want to Work for Myself (or Maybe the Government)

Forty-one percent of Gen Y urbanites have full-time jobs outside the home and another 10% have part-time jobs. Regardless of what jobs they have now, a large percentage of urban Chinese 18- to 24-year-olds dream of being their own boss someday. When asked what kind of company they would ideally like to work for, more than a third (37%) of urban Gen Y respondents tell Gallup they would like to start their own businesses and work for themselves.

But ironically, the more structured world represented by working for the state is equally appealing to urban Gen Y Chinese; the same percentage (37%) would opt for a career in a government department (23%) or government/state-owned enterprise (14%) as their ideal vocation.

The Western Influence

Multinational firms see Gen Y Chinese as adventurous and impressionable, and have focused their efforts on attracting this target market to their Western wares. Gallup data support the hypothesis that urban Gen Y Chinese are far more susceptible to Western influences than are city dwellers aged 25 and older. Eight in 10 Gen Y Chinese (81%) have watched a Western film in the last year (compared with 47% of those 25 and older) and 62% of Gen Y urbanites have purchased Western music (nearly three times the percentage of the older group). Gen Y also outpaces its older counterparts in visiting Western or American-themed bars/nightclubs and eating American fast food.

Bottom Line

Dramatically different from other demographic groups, urban Gen Y Chinese are leading the globalization of contemporary China. This group is individualistic, entrepreneurial, and they are eager consumers of everything the Western marketplace has to offer. Older Chinese might shake their heads at Gen Y's rejection of the Confucian ethic, but marketers had better acquaint themselves with this group of early adapters who defy convenient stereotypes of the Chinese consumer.

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