China's Post '90s Generation: New Minds, Old World

In this May 29, 2014 photo, high school students dressed in uniforms march on Tiananmen Square to stand at guard posts of You
In this May 29, 2014 photo, high school students dressed in uniforms march on Tiananmen Square to stand at guard posts of Young Pioneers, a youth group under the Communist Party of China, around the Monument to the People's Heroes on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Elite members of youth Communist groups in schools are organized to guard the posts as a nationalistic and party loyalty education. A quarter century after the Communist Party’s attack on demonstrations centered on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, it is little more than a distant tale to young Chinese. The ruling party prohibits public discussion and 1989 is banned from textbooks and Chinese websites. (AP Photo/Alexander F. Yuan)

The New York Times recently published an article that claimed marketers' focus on the "Millennial" generation - that is, individuals born in the last two decades of the 20th century - had become an a obsessive fixation.

How true.

Yes, Millennials are more "digitally native" than older cohorts. But their "dependence on technology, [is] probably just a leading indicator of where life is headed for everyone." Furthermore, the anxiety triggered by stagnant incomes and declining social mobility has resulted a global "live for now" (Pepsi's new tagline) ethos rather than a wholesale embrace of anti-conformist, anti-corporate values.

This myth of generational overthrow has also taken root in China -- albeit writ large. The entire nation is convinced that the Post 90s generation - 15-to-25-year olds born after the 1989 Tiananmen "incident," an era of seismic social and economic shift -- is almost unrecognisably foreign.

True, the pace of change is swift in China. So swift, in fact, the "Post 90s" generation is often contrasted to "Post 80s" generation.

Generational Evolution

The latter, at least those living in "first tier" cities such as Beijing and Shanghai, matured during an era of naïve optimism. They "entered the system" only a few years after Deng Xiaoping proclaimed, "To get rich is glorious!" and turbo-charged the reform agenda.

Twenty years ago, China's engagement with the world had barely begun. The Internet was accessible to only the privileged few. Parents still espoused "protective" values reinforced by their experiences during the instability of two man-made disasters -- the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Back then, a diploma from even second-rate universities was a golden ticket.

Post 90s types are both more worldly and pessimistic. Until now, there lives have been comfortable. Video games, international travel, large bedrooms and Lays potato chips are taken for granted.

However, skies have darkened. Adulthood looms. Post 90s confront a reality of pervasive corruption, slowing growth rates, and existential fears born of environmental degradation that raise fundamental questions about the sustainability of China's growth paradigm. Competition for good jobs is more intense than ever. Seven million graduates enter the job market each year with most unprepared for the global knowledge economy.

Of course, it's not all gloom and doom. The digital revolution has broadened horizons. According to the China Daily, more than 28 million "virtual enterprises" have been launched, a burst of creative entrepreneurialism and democratized market opportunity ripe for the picking. Social networks -- in the first quarter of 2015, WeChat, TenCent's largest community portal, had more than 480 million active users on the Mainland - has created China's most branché generation. E-commerce has liberated commercial choice, particularly in lower-tier cities where bricks and mortar stores continue to underwhelm, to an extent unimaginable a few years ago. Alibaba's 24-hour "Single Day" promotion, targeted to lovelorn youth, generated more than $10 billion in revenue.

These forces, both positive and negative, have resulted in incontestable attitudinal changes.

The post 80s generation tended to be more naïve and more ambitious. Optimistic about "getting ahead," they were prone to blue-sky professional fantasy. American Dreams in China was a popular 2013 film that captured bygone youthful aspirations. It told the story of three friends who ventured to the United States to launch a successful English language school that eventually got listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

Post 90s realities have yielded a more grounded generation of doers. They are focused on the present, living in the moment. They crave "experience" over master-of-the-universe achievement. They bristle against constricted definitions of success. According to a J. Walter Thompson study on BRIC Millennials, 27% of Chinese aged 15-25 now agree that an investment in a "gap year" represents good "life experience." More broadly, they "search for meaning" through travel, crave global connections and a wider array of role models - including Ma Jiajia, an online sex shop operator, one of many idols who march to the beat of their own drummers. A favorite movie: Tiny Times, a light-hearted confection that celebrates, well, nothing in particular.

Cultural Constants

Still, generational factors can be overstated. Ten years of iPhones and online romance portals cannot sweep away thousands of years of Confucian culture. Surveys in China still show a preference for "guardianship discourse" with elites responsible for the good of the whole society.

Expressions of modern Chinese culture are affected by both constants and variables. The nation is more globally connected, affluent and digitalized. But many things haven't changed. The structure of Chinese society - the relationship between individual and society - remains intact.

Yes, Post 90s types sport tattoos and takes vacations in Paris or New Zealand. But Western-style individualism - that is, the encouragement of society to define oneself independent of society -- has not taken root. Education is rote, rooted in mastery of received wisdom, not creative self-expression. Getting rich is still "glorious," but full-throttled capitalism has never been embraced. Challenge to convention remains risky. (There are no Chinese Steve Jobs on the horizon. Notable commercial successes, from Xioami mobile phones to Alibaba's e-commerce portal, are "twists" on timeless Chinese corporate models that prize broad scale and low price.) Family structure remains traditional, with gay marriage an unthinkable proposition. Parental relationships, while more casual than years ago, are rooted in filial piety. Sons do not sass fathers. And commercial relationships are lubricated by personal relationships - or "face," the fuel of forward advancement. Institutions that ensure an equal playing field do not exist. The tall, rich and handsome gaofushuai exists on a higher, and non-intersecting, plane than dime-a-dozen diaosi -- that is, the common guy or, directly translated, the stray dangling hair.

The Post 90s Master Tension

So China's new generation remains conflicted. On one hand, individuals want to leave their mark - today - by pursuing their passions. On the other, they are held back by a regimented society. They are new minds in an old world. The Post 90s generation seeks brands that resolve the tensions between: a) quintessentially Chinese projection of status or power and b) youthful celebration of "now."

"Sensation" that does not move the individual forward, even in modest ways, still evaporates. In China, winning propositions have been, and always will be, a means to an end. Brands that enable young people to skillfully navigate youthful hearts command loyalty. Marketers who resolve the tension between ego affirmation and conformity deepen the role their brands play in life.

How Marketers Can Connect with Chinese Youth

Here are five ways to achieve this objective.

First, master happiness. The "old world" fuels anxiety, making happiness hard to reach. So brands that empower consumers to "command and control joy" will be embraced. For example, Coca-Cola positions itself as a new generation "happiness maker" during Chinese New Year, a time in which stuffy family traditions demand youthful reinterpretation. Brands that transform happiness into social currency are even more powerful. North Face celebrates the joy of adventure. But in China North Face leverages elaborate social media platforms that enable "display of experience" to earn peer admiration.

Second, fuel the butterfly effect. The "old world" restricts new minds so the Post 90s Everyman finds it difficult to make an impact. Marketers should empower small actions to start a trend that grows into a tidal wave. Mondelez' Stride gum, for example, is built on a long-lasting flavor proposition. Advertising demonstrates how one chew triggers an never-ending avalanche of "deliciously brilliant" ideas that transform the office environment. Before the Beijing 2008 Olympics, QQ, TenCent's instant messaging service, "spread the pride" by developing a emoticon to "heart" China. Tens of millions of netizens contributed to an epic display of collective patriotism.

Third, live large now. Anxiety about an increasingly uncertain future is an incentive to "make today count." But twenty-first century Confucians want to do more than "live for now." They want to make a splash others admire. Nike encourages people who "just do it." Everywhere. But in China, a rallying cry to "take action, not lose heart" is expressed in bold print ads that exhort runners to explicitly affirm uniqueness: "Lose weight the hard way," "Forget your job and jog" and "Don't play, push." A youth hostel in Lhasa Tibet proclaims, "Action is freedom." The tagline of Island Etude, a popular 2014 youth film, goads a new generation to "take action today or lose opportunity forever." Samsung's Galaxy note pad makes an explicit link between "dreaming today" and "succeeding tomorrow."

Some brands connect "decisions for today" with cash outlay that generates praise. Ikea urges newly independent apartment dwellers to transform small rooms into a youth cool gathering sites. Converse conducted an online competition for students to "Color up dull dorm rooms." Winners' creations were displayed on popular social media platforms.

Fourth, orchestrate togetherness. The new world has disrupted conventional order but China is still a Confucian society in which identity remains bound to personal relationships. Brands that facilitate new-style interactions transform kids into kings of the hill. Coca-Cola's "refreshment apps" enable children to enliven family dynamics through "techno-bonding." Adidas #allinformygirls campaign turns aerobics to a motivational platform for "your new sisters." The blockbuster "See you at McDonald's" promotion pushed Internet surfers "out of chat rooms" and into McCafés to "forge real friendships" over coffee and McFlurries.

Fifth, applaud unconventional genius. The conformist path to success is narrow. Avant-garde talents are often ignored. Brands that channel new-fangled passions into fame touch hearts. Superboy, a television singing competition, demands respect for raw talent. A television ad featuring street performers audaciously calls mentors to compete for a chance to let someone else shine: "Who will listen to my solo? Who will listen to my mix? Who will rock with me? Who will be dazzled my dancing moves? Who will accompany my blues? Who earns the right to guide me?" The young protagonist of a Nike basketball campaign dares society to "Give me the ball" so "I can show my stuff."

Importantly, "understated cleverness" has always been cherished trait. In a dog-eat-dog world, smarts are weapons on the battlefield of life. The ability to master, then navigate, omnipresent rules of convention remains a competitive advantage. But expression of Post 90s smarts can be less subtle. An ad for Mentos candies, for example, elegantly fuses "cool refreshment" with reconfiguration of the hierarchy. In one ad, a junior executive uses classic Chinese wordplay to call his boss both a "temperamental monster" and a "world class leader."

In conclusion, China's new generation, the most worldly and liberated in the country's history, bucks convention. It wants to "celebrate the moment" and "live in the now." But Post 90s youngsters are motivated conflicting desires to both pursue passions and conform to regimented social imperatives. They are new minds in an old world. The opportunity for brands to resolve this human challenge - to reinvigorate a sense of self amidst hyper-morphing mores -- is ripe with potential.

This article was originally published in Forbes Asia online edition. With thanks to Li YuHong, J. Walter Thompson Shanghai Planning Director, for co-authorship.