啃老: on millennial poverty

In 2010, when many of the 90s kids where applying for college, they were encouraged to become economically independent. Shame was also deployed, and recent college graduates who couldn’t find a job and continued to live at home were accused of “gnawing on the old folks (啃老)”. Of course, these were the same kids who were also accused of “being too rich for their own good (富二代)”.

I like 90s kids. I’ve taught them (and yes, I like them better outside the classroom, but that said they also probably like me better outside the classroom, too) and today I work with them at Handshake 302. They’re smart and creative and trying to figure out how to handle the fallout of a polarising economy. Shenzhen’s economy continues to grow. But. The percentage of the population that is actually benefitting from this growth is shrinking. Thus, 90s kids are the one’s facing the emplacement of a class structure that is increasingly determined by generation, in addition to traditional variables such as ethnic group (China’s version of race), parents’ job, region, and gender.

Here’s our current predicament: 90s kids have more stuff than their parents, but fewer opportunities to buy houses or rent apartments in convenient and/or hip neighbourhoods. They use their cellphones and mini pads and tech savvy to endure hour-long commutes on shiny state-of-the-art subway trains. 90s kids have endured the excesses of the gaokao system and growing sense of urban insecurity. It is clear that despite what everyone thought in the 90s, the children born in the 90s are not more happy and prosperous (幸福) than their parents.

Yesterday, a friend and collaborator and all round amazing human being who was born in 1993 said to me, “You no longer hear the expression ‘gnawing on the old folks’ or ‘too rich for our own good’. It’s like everyone knows that the economy has solidified and our parents and their friends grabbed all the opportunities.”

My friend had noticed the normalisation of the relative impoverishment of an entire generation. Nobody thinks it strange or distressing or infuriating that a generation of young people face tough odds for achieving independence. What’s more, its common knowledge that most people will need at least six working adults to provide one nuclear family with a house. And yes, the focus of this accumulation is gendered: most families invest in their sons, and also yes, many sisters are expected to contribute to their brother’s house purchase before they “marry out”.

So as we approach 2017, here’s lament du jour: My friend wasn’t complaining. She was trying to figure out how to navigate the precarity that has been built into the Shenzhen landscape and structures her life choices: to save for a housing purchase, living in an urban village, commuting, and not going out, or not to save, living in a convenient area and consuming the pleasures of urban life during her down time.

My hope for 2017: May we who were born in 50s and 60s and 70s get our act together and look beyond our own smug rags-to-riches-I-suffered-you-can-too stories and seriously restructure opportunities not only for members of our respective cohorts, but also for those 80s and 90s kids who continue to shine and contribute despite our generations’ failure to address our greed and complicity with the economic relationships that allowed us to become “independent” people.

 

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