Critical Issues Confronting China: Zak Dychtwald
The “new” generation of Chinese people, born after the late 1990s, has already been a transformative force around the world. In step with China’s once rapidly growing economy, they have exerted enormous buying power and influence in every sector of the global market. More recently, their increasing presence in politics has caught the attention of those interested in China’s political future. Scholars have noted that their lives share almost nothing in common with the lives of their parents’ generation.
The same generation now faces a new set of challenges. China’s era of double-digit growth has come to an end, and the forcasted real GDP growth rate for post-2024 is projected to be under 5 percent. With the slowing economy, the sense of ever-available opportunity is fading: the youth unemployment rate in China hit almost 22 percent in May. In this new environment, what do China’s youth want?
During the Critical Issues Confronting China series at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Zak Dychtwald, the author of Young China: How Restless Generation Will Change their Country and the World and the founder of Young China Group, provided two answers: freedom and opportunity. But he cautioned that these aspirations don’t align with what Western societies assume they mean. Here’s Dychwald’s framework for understanding the mindsets of China’s youth.
Five Key Concepts
Impact of Change
China’s incredible economic growth to date has shaped the mindsets of this new generation. “It is critical to turn [the growth] numbers into the scale of impact the young generation has felt,” Dychtwald stressed. In 1990, China represented 1 percent of global GDP. The number jumped to 4 percent in 2003 and skyrocketed to 19 percent in 2020. Not only did this escalation happen in young people’s short lifetimes but those born during this period still have much of their life ahead.
“The open attitude of Chinese youth to try new things has created an ecosystem [in China] that further drives more innovation.”—Zak Dychtwald
To highlight China’s extreme changes, Dychtwald proposed a “lived change index.” Calibrated against per capita GDP change, the index measures how much change one undergoes in their lifetime. For someone born in early 1990s China, the index is 33. In comparison, the same demographic group in the United States would have an index of only 2.5, while in India, the only country with a larger youth population than China, the index is 5. Brazil, another fast-growing economy, records 3.2, and Germany scores 1.9.
Speed (and its Psychology)
The incomparable scale of growth has instilled in young Chinese people a unique sense of speed. “Living through such changes impacts the way you see the world,” Dychtwald underscored, “and that creates a particular psychology.”
Young Chinese embrace rapid change without resistance. For Chinese youth, the dramatic changes in Shanghai’s cityscape from the 1990s to the 2020s, described by Dychtwald as “a shift from an 1800s painting to a sci-fi cartoon,” comfortably falls within their experience. At the same time, the sense of speed translates into an expectation that economic growth will continually generate opportunities. Whether those chances arise from the market or from one’s background, the young generation believes that they can always make a leap.
Demography (Generational Differences)
The one-child policy in effect from 1979 to 2015 created an unprecedented generational dynamic in China. Dychtwald noted that China’s demographic distribution forms an “upside-down pyramid structure.” The baby boomer generation, born from the 1950s to the late 1970s, comprises the large top segment (404 million, surpassing the size of contemporary population increases in the U.S. and Canada combined) while the children of the one-child policy, a much smaller cohort, make up the bottom.
Dychtwald illustrated how this demographic distribution affects the flow of wealth. Living through the tumultuous Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the baby boomer generation in China has developed what he calls “the spirit of extraordinary delayed gratification.” The rewards of their hardship were anticipated to benefit not themselves, but their children and grandchildren. This led to what social scientists termed the “Little Emperor Syndrome,” describing the cavalier attitude and reckless behavior of children raised with seemingly excessive attention and comfort provided by their parents and grandparents. Setting aside the negative connotations, the phenomenon also explains why young Chinese people possess significant purchasing power in the global market.
Born into an era of constant and instant changes, China’s youth don’t hesitate to try new technologies and embrace innovation. “We all know innovations have value only when people use them,” Dychtwald said. “The open attitude of Chinese youth to try new things has created an ecosystem [in China] that further drives more innovation.”
With all these psychological and material developments, young Chinese people take pride in their place in the world. At first glance, this sense of pride may seem like an extension of the Little Emperor’s attitude. Yet, as Dychtwald highlighted, it is “an informed pride,” one that has been reinforced throughout one’s lifetime by seemingly infinite opportunities and world-changing transformations.
Freedom and Opportunities
Young Chinese people not only want but presume the arrival of opportunities. However, as the economic and social circumstances change and the prospect of guaranteed success becomes uncertain, they increasingly yearn for freedom. But the freedom young people want, Dychtwald argued, is not political but rather freedom from the pressure to compete and conform. Wrapping up the talk, Dychtwald engaged in a conversation with current Harvard students who shared insights on the pressures they feel, what their parents expected from them, how in some ways the parents’ desires collide with their own, and how studying at Harvard and in the United States has influenced them.