generations, again

The other day over lunch, a good friend expounded on the characteristics that distinguish children born in the 80s, 90s, and 00s based on what she understood of their parents, who were born in the 50s, 60s, and 70s respectively.

50s people, she said, are stubborn and entitled. She went on to say that they believe that they have suffered more than any other generation and continue to make demands based on this suffering. And although its true that they did suffer during the CR and also didn’t have as many opportunities to go to school, it’s really hard to (still) sympathize with them because they also, she concluded, have the most black and white morality in the country. The 50s generation came of age during the CR, so they are principled and unyielding, but also rather homogeneous in their aspirations, “Their ambitions are all the same–hold power, get rich.” In turn, their children, who were primarily born in the 80s, she claimed, are the most mercenary of the young generation; “they always have to have the best of everything.” She went on, “have you noticed?”–and here I nodded–“They want the best houses and the highest ranking. It’s like they’re completing their parents’ desires for them, but without any underlying belief.”

In contrast, she said, 60s people are less hardheaded than 50s people. “Maybe because our childhoods were so carefree,” she opined. “My youth was just like in the movie, In the Heat of the Sun (阳光灿烂的日子). We ran around and did whatever we wanted.” On her reading, this childhood made 60s people more diverse and more tolerant. However, because they experienced socialism, 60s people have a strong moral compass; 60s people are the most likely to be involved in social enterprise and philanthropy. In turn, their children–the 90s generation–are China’s “me” generation. “In the good sense,” she said, “the 90s generation is likely to follow their hearts and are not so worried about money. In the bad sense,” she explained, “90s kids can be narcissistic, caring only about satisfying their desires and having fun.”

“So 70s kids?” I prompted. She sighed. “They’re really not anything, are they? I mean they’re just ordinary. And their children are empty-headed.” I laughed and said, “They’re still in school.” And she responded with, “Exactly!”

So, what to make of these observations, other than the obvious that most middle-aged and older people tend to think that younger people aren’t quite up to snuff?

Although I didn’t fully agree with assigning personality characteristics by cohort, nevertheless I understood my friend’s characterization with respect to how history has shaped individual lives as well as the ways that power is distributed and held in Shenzhen today. After all, many of the people currently in top positions were born in the 50s, upper level executives were born in the 60s, while folks born in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are trying to make their way among the children of the CR, Tian’anmen, and the corruption of the 90s.

To test out this hypothesis, I mentioned my friend’s generational map of society and my interpretation of how history has shaped China’s generations to another friend, who practices TMC. The doctor said “Could be.” But then, she noted that Chinese people like to think about things in 60-year cycles. Known as “Stems and Branches (天干地支),” the system posits how cycles, transformations and interactions of qi affect a person. So my friend had chosen to focus on a 60-year cycle (50s through the 90s), which makes sense in terms of TCM, but not necessarily in terms of historic cycles because the stems and branches don’t tell us anything, but they don’t not tell us anything. And she wasn’t being cryptic. I interpreted her statement to mean something like “the stems and branches don’t matter, except when they do.”

“So it would be a mistake not to consult them?” I wondered.

My friend shrugged and joked  that her astrology was more reliable than that of most matchmakers, who rely on the “8 characters (year, month, day and hour of birth)” to determine suitable marriage partners, wedding dates, and when to have a child. “Have you noticed?” she mused. “All these parents setting up their unmarried children? It’s as if the worst thing that could happen would be to stay single and not have kids. If this is how the 90s kids are getting married, who knows what the kids born in the 2020s will be like?”

This was interesting. I asked, “So you think how people get married is more important than birth year in determining an individual’s personality?”

“Eat more food,” my friend chided, waving her chopsticks over a plate of stir-fried eggplant. “You overthink things. Things matter or they don’t. With individuals, problems come case by case and you write a prescription based on their situation today. In a few days, you see how the medicine has worked and then adjust the prescription accordingly.”

“So history doesn’t matter?” I pushed.

“Of course it matters,” she said. “It’s just that we can’t predict how it will matter. 50s people and 60s people are different. But they aren’t only different because their parents were born in the 20s and 30s. Maybe they are different because of where they were born. Maybe they are different because of class status. Maybe they are different because of gender. Even if you have all these social theories, and even if your theories are correct, at the end of day, you still have to treat people case by case because there will be an exception. And the exceptions are what make life interesting.”



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