China's Youth: Rebellious, Modernising or Misunderstood?

China's Youth: Rebellious, Modernising or Misunderstood?
Aug 09, 2011 By Pete Marchetto ,

A great deal has been said in the Chinese media about the '90s generation. They are disobedient. They are disrespectful. They are unpredictable. They are rebellious. Some suggest they are completely out of control. One thing is certain; they certainly don't fit in with the expectations and demands of elder generations.

With more and more of those born in the '90s going off to college and out to work, tension between China’s youth and their elders is increasing as these sometimes unruly youth try make their presence felt under the watchful eyes of their teachers, administrators and leaders. 


So, what's happening? Well, nothing new really. There was no strange transformation that led those born on or after January 1st, 1990 to begin behaving in a different way. For decades now there has been rapid change in the thinking of young people; so rapid that a difference of a mere four years in age is considered a generation gap. One friend of mine, born in the late '80s, said of his sister born in the early '90s that he couldn't understand her way of thinking at all, yet they were raised by the same parents.

With a much bigger gap separating the '90s generation from their parents – perhaps even more if you consider their college leaders and bosses – it's no surprise they can’t understand one another. Moreover, with the media controlled by the elders, it’s also no surprise that such ‘wayward youth get bad press; whether deserved or not.  

More so than ever before, the '90s generation is embracing the modern world instead of being at odds with it. The traditional hierarchy of obediently following the orders of parents, then school leaders and finally bosses is beginning to crack. Such ways might have made sense in the days of the 'iron rice bowl' when people were presented with strict paths they had no choice but to follow, but today such thinking seems a little outmoded. The days where simple obedience to those above you could guarantee a life of stability have been replaced by an atmosphere of fierce, almost Darwinian competition that is all about who makes the right choice that gets them one step ahead of the others.

Today, choice is everything and security comes from making those choices wisely.  Young people are realising they must develop critical thinking in order to be able to evaluate what is on offer. If the Chinese society of the iron rice bowl couldn’t live with critical thinking, the New China can’t survive without it.

In addition, the ‘90s generation have access via the Internet to a whole world of information their predecessors lacked in the crucial states of early adulthood. They are at a crossroads where they are struggling to make choices of their own free will while their elders whisper in their ear to follow the traditional order of things. Some might try to label them as rebellious and individualistic, but more often than not, they are simply confused.

This phenomenon is nowhere more clearly illustrated with those of the ‘90s generation that are just now starting to graduate and enter the ‘real world’. They are emerging from an educational environment that never really permitted them to make decisions by themselves and are thrown into a world where they are suddenly faced with important questions in need of critical evaluation. Where should they live? What work suits them? Where can they find the opportunities? How can they assess those opportunities? How can they sell themselves?

Many westerners might have learned from an early age to think for themselves, but for many Chinese youth it comes as a shock. They will end up adapting, but they have to struggle through a vast and frightening new world their education did little to prepare them for.

In the coming years these same people will start becoming parents themselves. In my classes I have asked those of the ‘90s generation if they would raise their own children the same way they were raised. Generally the answer was no.

They don’t want their future children to suffer from the same confusion and lack of skills. They don’t want their children to be forced to make decisions, like getting a boyfriend or girlfriend, behind their parent’s back. They recognize that they would want to raise their children in a way where they are free to make decisions by themselves so they can develop their own ideas. They made it clear that they don’t want their children to lie to them as they lied to their parents and they don’t want their kids to enter the world without the proper tools to make good decisions.

Perhaps it is time for the critics of China’s youth to acknowledge the change and to welcome it. As young people in China become more individualistic, more discerning in the choices they make and more critical and analytical in how they view the world, society should not try to hinder them. The modern world requires modern thinking, if you try to stop it, it will still rise.

Criticising Chinese youth will not pull them back into the traditional way of doing things. Those of the old guard should be more discerning, and if they are brave enough they should move forward to meet China’s rapidly changing youth. The point is simple: they need to embrace the change. After all, it is their decisions that created it. 

Related links
Post 80s and 90s: What’s With the Ultra Short Generation Gaps in China?
The Rise and Fall of Chinese Punk: A Legacy of Youth No Longer Silent
The Mental Health of China's Youth in Decline

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Keywords: Understanding China’s youth generation gap China rebellious youth China


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China's current parent and grandparent generation are moribund. Their time is over. They are so out of touch with the modern world.

China's new (probably the post-90s) generation will be the first to develop new ideas and cast off the shackles of oppressive communist thinking that has enslaved the older generation.

So I fully support these 'rebellious' youths. This is precisely what China needs to move forwards.


Aug 09, 2011 09:05 Report Abuse