All Eyes East
Lessons From The Front Lines of Marketing to China's Youth
By Mary Bergstrom
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2012 Mary Bergstrom
All rights reserved.
The New (R)evolutionaries: the post-70S, Post-80S, and Post-90s-Generations
Post-50s and post-60s get money, post-70s get girls, and post-80s only get pressures.
—Han Han, novelist and China's most popular blogger, born in 1982
I remember the excitement I felt dodging treacherous Shanghai traffic on my way to meet a potential senior research manager. Let's call her "Maggie." On paper, Maggie had everything I was looking for—she seemed like someone who would be curious enough to dive deeply for understanding and organized enough to make sure her efforts led to insights. I nodded at most of her answers, until she got to the part about working with others.
She would be happy to work with people from her own generation (those born in the 1980s) and even with the previous generation, but Maggie was quick to communicate a clear bias against those born less than a decade after her. "I don't know if I could work with a post-90s," she lamented, "they are too wild." When I asked her to expound on her judgment, her assertion was unshaken—despite an admitted lack of first-hand experience. Supported by rumors she had read online and anecdotes from her same-generation peers,Maggie had determined that youth just a few years her junior were too different to work with.
What struck me was her confidence in making a declaration that was not based on any personal connection. This was especially surprising for someone whose work depended on unbiased research and analysis. And yet, it wasn't surprising. Even the media was making sweeping assumptions about people based on the decade in which they were born. Youth in the mainland were being pitted against each other, sometimes based on as little as five years' difference in age. The generations were not playing nice.
In China, each decade presumably brings a new change in mind-set. Until recently, the Chinese named generations in sequence, from the first generation (pre-1949) through the fifth generation (post-1989). In the post-Mao mainland, the country's race to modernity has created very different childhoods for each generation, inextricably melding youth with the opportunities, expressions, and motivations of their decade. Today, generations are more linked with a moment in time than they are with each other. As such, they are named after the decade in which a person is born: the post-1970s, the post-1980s, and the post-1990s.
But there are no hard or fast rules for defining generations. For example, the United States uses demographics to help create segments. Gen X (generally defined as those born in the late 1960s to early 1980s) was originally called the Baby Bust generation, for its low birth rate, as compared to the large Baby Boomer generation that preceded it. Generation Y, or the Next Generation, followed, and its members have been nicknamed the Echo Boomers, or the Millennials, again in reference to the group's size compared to the Baby Boomers. This structuring (Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Y) is used in many countries, including Russia, the Czech Republic, South Africa and Brazil.
Other countries take a different approach to defining a generation. In lieu of following demographic shifts, some countries mark new generations when they experience influential events or critical changes in their population's mind-set and behavior. Japan refers to its young generations as the Post-Bubble Generation; the Shinjinrui Junior Generation, also known as Generation Z; and the Yutori. India defines new generations when critical shifts in outlook occur (i.e., the Traditional Generation; the Nontraditional Generation; and the most recent, least self-reflective, most globally compatible Gen Y).
Although China has marked its generations every decade, gaps arise even in this abbreviated time frame. In my research, I have witnessed critical shifts in attitudes in audiences with as little as three to five years' age difference. I have also noted that, while they self-identify with the decade in which they were born, some youth feel and act more aligned to another generation. Grasping the character of these generations is critical to understanding Chinese youth and to resonating with target audiences. It also serves as a poignant example of how fast-moving influences have accelerated divisions.
Generational labels in China are not just descriptive, they are also deeply personal. Unlike their Gen X and Gen Y counterparts in the United States, Chinese use generations to establish strict boundaries. These labels align individuals with a specific and universally understood group, a movement that is larger and more powerful than any single individual. In this vernacular, Chinese youth are commonly identified—and perhaps most importantly, identify themselves—by the decade in which they were born. For example, someone born in 1976 would be referred to as a post-70s, while his cousin born in 1987 would be a post-80s, and his neighbor born in 1994 would be a post-90s. These descriptors connote categories with very specific personalities. The statement, "She is a post-90s" says just as much about the "she" in question as it does about the post-90s as a category.
From Friend to Foe
The year 2008 was a turning point in many ways for youth in China—it was jam-packed with events that caused them to reevaluate their position in their communities and in the world. At the end of 2008, I conducted a study of the changing attitudes and behaviors of trendsetting youth for an advertising agency that services a variety of youth-focused brands. In a year that included the Olympics, the sex scandal of pop superstar Edison, and confrontations with foreign powers over Tibetan independence, respondents revealed that the most important event of the year was the Sichuan earthquake.
As the nation rallied resources to support earthquake victims, an unexpected star emerged: Chinese youth. The earthquake initiated a groundswell of activism—young people donating time and money, organizing, and participating in relief efforts. All eyes were on China's only children as they took initiative for the first time to contribute to society.
Before the quake, the post-80s generation was described as Little Emperors, and was reputed to be self-serving and individualistic. In the wake of the earthquake, more than six thousand volunteers arrived on-site to help victims recover; 80 percent of these volunteers were reported to be members of the post-80s clan. Beyond the volume of volunteers, the selfless quality of their commitment was also unexpected; the media hailed the post-80s' willingness to sleep on the street and bring their own rations in order to help with the relief effort. Many youth even transported volunteers and supplies in their own cars because they did not trust official aid networks to deliver. The post-80s showed they could think and act beyond themselves, and caused the country to rethink negative stereotypes. At the same time, their actions further amplified how and why the generations perceived themselves to be not only different but also separate from each other. A line was being drawn in terms of responsibility and nonconformism.
In contrast to the spotlight on the post-80s, the earthquake cast a shadow on the post-90s. Video clips of the post-90s, seemingly unaware of the earthquake, and screenshots of their blog posts portrayed them as less than patriotic. Compared to the post-80s' enthusiastic volunteerism, the post-90s seemed uncaring and ill informed. In this important time of need, the post-80s rose to the top and pushed the post-90s down.
Xiao Yun, a pretty girl claiming to be a post-90s from Sichuan, exemplified her generation's contentious reputation. After the quake, Xiao Yun posted more than a hundred scantily clad photos of herself online with the stated mission of raising money for Sichuan relief. The photos, which drew more than 1 million views, also attracted controversy and further drew the lines between the generations. While some criticized her for such a sexy public display, Xiao Yun and her supporters—exhibiting typical post-90s individualism versus post-80s mass orientation—argued that it was her right to express herself.
Broadcasting to the Generations
The reputation of each generation has been spread virally and fine-tuned using videos, charts, and jokes to boil them down to their essence. The result is more than just casual, sloppy slang; these concepts have been given a platform for widespread acceptance. Stereotypes brewed in youth's internal distribution loops have percolated up into the mainstream media and made their way into official, state-run headlines.
The mainstream media has capitalized on the country's generation fixation, leveraging differences to create entertainment that exploits and explains the gap. Airing on Shanghai's Arts and Humanities television channel, Speak Out allows the audience to tackle current events and new societal developments. Besides its subject matter, the show draws eager viewers keen to compare generational viewpoints. The program identifies audience members by their generation, name- tagging participants simply by decade (the post-40s through the post-90s). For Speak Out, labeling a speaker by generation is all that is needed to help viewers understand and categorize his or her point of view. One episode banged away at the idea of couples from different social and economic backgrounds getting married. While more traditional-minded speakers argued that an unequal footing leads to struggle and unhappiness, others claimed that backgrounds matter less in modern times. A post-50s male suggested that the obsession with a good match was the result of mothers butting into their child's welfare. He warned that the practice was out of date and that it hampered parents' relations with their children. A post-70s female creative planner felt strongly that people's social standing could be changed quickly in modern China, and thus it was an antiquated means of judging a person's quality. A male post-80s playwright waxed poetic, "This is not a pig farm, and we are not looking for a qualified pig to generate the best piglet."
Another television program focused on generations airs on Hunan Satellite TV. The first program to use a number as its name is 8090, squarely targets post-80s and post-90s viewers. The weekly program allows youth to voice their personal problems and gain exposure to different perspectives. Episodes tackle issues germane to youth trying to find their way, including whether girlfriends should financially support their boyfriends, and what a woman who found herself pregnant and married to a cheating spouse should do. The show's 12-person observation team, called 8899, is composed of television hosts, students, white-collar workers, and experts from various fields.
While shows like these create a dialogue, they also highlight the chasms between youth in China, often leading to bad blood. At first, the post-70s fretted over the post- 80s' lack of responsibility, then the post-80s insulted the post-90s, only to have the post-90s fire back. In China, each group expresses a general sentiment of superiority but with very different reasoning. The post-70s see themselves as China's responsible old guard, the post-80s perceive themselves to be the shiny face of new China, and the post-90s are confident enough in the system to create breaks from it. The media both illustrates and exploits these stereotypes to explain differences and enable generalizations.
The Gloves Come On(Line)
Despite obvious differences between the post-70s and their younger peers, it is really the battle between the post-80s and the post-90s that has captured the attention of the nation. The start of the altercation predates the earthquake by a few short months and has been attributed to a seemingly benign bout of name-calling. When a group of post-80s created and uploaded a treatise against the post-90s to a video-sharing site, post-90s "netizens" (the term used to describe Chinese Internet citizens) responded in kind. Taunt forth, taunt back. A video battle was born.
The first offense, titled "On the Non-Mainstream," was a video created by youth in the style of an official China Central Television (CCTV) news broadcast and uploaded to a video sharing site. The mock program, titled "Super News," at first seemed real. The creators maintained high production values, employing a motion graphic title sequence and dubbing over real newscasters' commentaries with their own dialogue. The topic of the newscast was the problems of the post-90s. A fictitious professor was the featured expert—the bag covering his head, with a face drawn in black ink, tipped viewers off to the spoof.
Reviewing a collage of sexy, silly images that the post-90s uploaded of themselves, the professor criticized the generation's unique online vocabulary (officially called Martian language) and their hallmark big-eyed, pucker-lipped, Photoshopped self-portraits. The professor griped that these photos featuring exaggerated big eyes and puckered lips made the post-90s "look like monkeys." His overall analysis that the generation was "stupid" was followed by a montage of post-80s mocking the post-90s for their style, language, and public displays of sexuality.
This taunt prompted a comeback from the opposing side. Titled "Response from a Non-Mainstream Beauty," the video shows a post-90s girl tapping away at her pink PSP (PlayStation Portable gaming device). Her hair is held purposefully in a messy side bun, her makeup and expressions exaggerated in allegiance to her generation's unique style. In the background is her computer, a collection of pink toys, and other trappings associated with a girl following China's cult of cute.
Throughout her single-shot, ten-minute monologue against the post-80s, she continues to multitask with her PSP. She rants that the post-80s are jealous of the post-90s' comfortable and glamorous life and boasts that she has friends with Hummers, living in big houses in Pudong (a recently developed, swanky area in Shanghai). She warns the post-80s that her generation is coming up and taking over. She closes her speech by contorting her face into some highly adorable, puffed-cheek expressions augmented with hand signals to the audience. While not exactly fighting words by most standards, this exchange prompted a snowstorm of video insults from both sides. The post-80s point the finger at the post-90s for acting outside of the norms, and the post-90s point back that the norms are old news.
To understand the generations, it is useful to look at them individually, but a comparative analysis provides some context for the changes between each generation. Generations have evolved on a sliding scale: the post-70s are traditionalists, the post-80s are more conservative leaders, and the post-90s are linked with nonconformism. The evolution in attitudes and behaviors can be seen across many areas. James Farrer, director of the Institute of Comparative Culture at Sophia University and author of Opening Up: Youth Sex Culture and Market Reform in Shanghai, has been studying the sexual evolution in Chinese society for 20 years. His analysis shows that each generation's beliefs about sex have been linked to the social and economic times they have lived through. As Farrer notes, "Of all the generations, the post-80s experience the biggest generation gap. The post-90s is much more likely to have parents that are liberal. They also are the first generation to grow up with extreme differences in wealth, and they're very aware of that. They are also the first to grow up where China is a rich country—and without that sort of anxiety and hunger that everybody in China used to have, that need to join the big world out there. The post-80s still feel like they need to catch up, but there is a sort of smugness in the youngest generation [the post-90s]." The generations demonstrate an evolution in attitudes and behaviors that starts with the last generation to have a memory of a pre-open China, the post-70s.
The Post-70s: Group-Oriented Traditionalists
Coming of age when China was still considered to be a poor country reinforced the post-70s' group thinking as a means of survival. Over 220 million strong, growing up surrounded by grandparents, parents, and siblings, the post-70s were raised with a strong work ethic and were oriented to improve living conditions for the whole family. Brought up during the transition from the Cultural Revolution, the post-70s grew up in an era when the government was easing its responsibility for providing clothing, food, housing, and occupations. (Continues...)
Excerpted from All Eyes East by Mary Bergstrom. Copyright © 2012 Mary Bergstrom. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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