Generation 90, as the teens born after 1990 are known, are reputedly even less socially responsible than the little emperors of generation 80. Not unexpectedly, Shenzhen’s wealthy second generation (富二代) is considered one of the most materialistic and selfish (最功利最自私) in the country. They have all (and yes making absolute generalizations about these teens is a national passtime) bought and then neglected to death goldfish and hamsters and bunnies and turtles; they all engage in competitive consumption, throwing out cell phones and laptops and gameboys as soon as a new model comes out; they all disrespect grandparents, ignore their parents, and only listen to their teachers when they are forced to. As a parent summarized the situation, “There are so many children today with great test skills, but are morally bankrupt (今天的学生功课好，却是个混蛋).”
Like all hyperbole, the stereotypes about Generation 90 carry grains of explosive truth. Most obviously, these stereotypes refer to rich kids, not the children of working families and definitely not the children of migrant workers. The parents of generation 90 think and spend in terms of 10,000s of yuan and not 1,000s (the working class) or 100s (migrant workers). These are kids who only have to face the consequences of their actions should their parents choose not to buy a way out for them. The most egregious examples are all school related: how much parents have spent to get a child into a top school; how much parents have given to a child for getting top grades; how much parents have spent when a child has been caught breaking rules.
In a country where the gaokao structures opportunity, it is easy to understand the resentment that fuels Generation 90 stereotypes. Resentment is further enflamed by the fact that even if these teens don’t test into a famous university, their families can finance a second chance abroad. I also empathize with the nervousness that infuses Generation 90 stereotypes. After all, these teens will hold key positions in the new world order; they are being trained as the next generation of political, military, economic, and cultural leaders and their parents are working hard to make sure that in this new world order China has a strong and respected position.
As a child of America’s postwar ascension, I share Generation 90’s conundrum. I was given puppies and hamsters, a top education, and access to key institutions. I was not only allowed, but also expected to make life choices based on desire and personal inclination, rather than on material necessity. My parents also worked hard to ensure that I would have opportunities to learn from, rather than be condemned for my mistakes. I don’t always like or agree with many of the decisions my students make, but I understand how difficult it is to unlearn privilege, especially when it doesn’t feel like anything but everyday life. Moreover, I realize that the wealth and prestige and opportunity that I inherited as part of GenX is the world that Generation 90 is struggling to overcome.