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China’s post-00s generation exhibit post-materialist values

YANG XIONG | 2021-06-24 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A group of newly enlisted post-00s receive military training at a base of the Hubei Provincial Armed Police Corps in Wuhan on May 7. Photo: CFP 


As a pivotal system for youth’s thought construction, values are the cardinal spiritual pursuit and motivation for their lives and careers. They are a set of lasting beliefs concerning what best behaviors are, or a system of beliefs sequenced by the degree of importance. 
 
American political scientist Ronald Inglehart (1934-2021), also founding president of the World Values Survey Association, was the first to observe the evolution of youth’s values across the globe. Based on his theory, materialism focuses on physical and physiological security, while post-materialist values are guided by a sense of self-expression and quality of life.  
 
From a long-term perspective regarding the evolution of values, we are witnessing an intergenerational shift in values. Post-materialists are more oriented towards self-actualization, and they prioritize life quality, and sustaining the environment. Younger generations are more receptive to post-materialist values than elder generations. 
 
Over the past decade, the global trend of post-materialism has been represented by the post-00s generation, those who were born in the 2000s, in China.
 
Mirror of social change
As a barometer of social change, the evolution of youth’s thoughts, behaviors, and values reflects the pace of social modernization. In March 2021, the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences released the latest survey on the cognitive features and thinking patterns of the post-00s generation, which revealed new characteristics and this demographic group’s cultural shift in Chinese big cities. 
 
First, they reported identification with traditional cultures along with rational patriotism, but foreign cultures still play an important role in their daily lives. Second, their opinions of social issues showed signs of “conceptual stratification.” In other words, they fell into different strata primarily for different attitudes toward, or evaluations of, the same incident. The traditional social stratification theory, which differentiates based on factors like wealth, education, and status, is not entirely applicable to this generation. 
 
Third, traditional authority consciousness was weakening, as online celebrities and entertainers became main objects of their obsession. Fourth, some post-00s were highly enterprising, while others were more passive, preferring to wait for opportunities to come to them. Fifth, the generation exhibited mixed values of materialism and post-materialism. Sixth, while their consciousness of equality and rules became stronger, they were tolerant of behaviors and attitudes in private domains, and held a clear-cut moral stance on what they agreed and disagreed with in public domains. 
 
The post-00s generation was born in the third decade of China’s reform and opening up drive, which marked the prime time of the country’s high economic growth. Since their birth, they have enjoyed fruits of reform and opening up, and lived more affluently than previous generations. When they went to school, the roaring development of the internet opened their minds significantly, resulting in their pursuit of more extensive hobbies, and more diverse yet inclusive ideas and values. 
 
Most post-00s youth were born during the period when China’s family planning policy remained tight, and the second-child policy hadn’t been unveiled yet. As the only children in their families, they possess characteristics common to Chinese only children, such as self-centeredness or attentiveness to their own feelings. 
 
Imprints of the times
Each generation is a product of history, and important social events will leave imprints on the growth of each youth group. However, not all incidents will bring about changes in values. Only those social events strongly connected to individual value pursuits and aspirations will inspire thought construction. Generally, the spectacular economic, political, cultural, and social changes in China over the past more than four decades have explicitly been embedded in the personalities and behaviors of the post-00s generation, imprinting them with unique hallmarks of the times. 
 
Born in a new period of reform and opening up and growing up in the information era, post-00s experienced major events at home and abroad, such as China’s accession to the WTO in 2001, China’s first manned spacecraft Shenzhou V’s successful launch in 2003, and the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. 
 
As China’s global status and clout has improved remarkably, the generation has a generally high sense of national confidence and identity. In addition, they witnessed the boom of the internet, artificial intelligence and 5G application during their puberty, and have been exposed to large amounts of information and wide scopes of knowledge, so processing and screening massive quantities of information is more challenging than acquiring more information. 
 
When it comes to psychosocial development, post-00s have highly autonomous thinking, strong identities, and an insouciant attitude toward life. In terms of social change, rules of the market economy, such as self-reliance, competition, and the quest for benefits, have penetrated their outlook on life and values. From the perspective of family structure, as a generation of only children, they were brought up in small families with simple interpersonal relationships, so they remain unfettered by austere discipline passed from previous generations in the socialization process. 
 
Mixed values
The evolution of post-00s’ values in China differs from the generational change that youth in Western developed countries has experienced. The new generation of Chinese youth is subject to both modernization and traditional values. 
 
Post-00s are a generation characterized by only children, globalization, and childhood on the internet. As such, their behaviors and value orientations indicate an approval of fine traditional culture, alongside a pursuit of modernization and post-materialist values. 
 
According to the survey, post-00s pursued both survival and happiness, traditional and modern values, rather than sacrificing one for the other. The share of those holding mixed values is significantly larger than those who favor materialist or post-materialist values. Moreover, national prosperity and identification with the motherland remain top core values of contemporary Chinese youth. In the survey, respondents shared positive attitudes about political participation, and acknowledged modern bureaucratic society’s rational authority values, such as rule of law and science. They did not show defiance or denial of authority in the post-modernist fashion. At the same time, they reported a strong desire to achieve worldly success and material abundance. 
 
As a new generation, post-00s pursue real happiness and high-quality life, have well-defined interests, seek an enjoyable and easy life, attach importance to personal privacy, and champion environmental protection. 
 
However, each young generation is faced with social challenges which arise for their own generational traits. In some ways, the immaturity of the post-00s generation is reflective of unstable institutional construction in contemporary China’s social modernization, which will become a crucial issue to solve for the sake of modernizing the country’s governance system and capacities. 
 
Impact of globalization
Globalization, as a significant feature of contemporary social life, is a vital feature of today’s world. With the increasing integration of the global economy and constant development of human communication, clashes between different moral values are unavoidable. Particularly the development and application of artificial intelligence and big data, and the popularization of social media websites and platforms among teenagers, have led to the increased globalization of information. 
 
In the present age of economic globalization, more and more Chinese students have opportunities to study abroad, while growing numbers of foreign students have been attracted to Chinese schools, increasing foreign companies have entered the Chinese market, and communication has flooded into China through people-to-people exchanges and the internet. 
 
While bringing convenience in materials and services, Western cultures and values have been inevitably introduced. Integration and clashes between different cultures are unavoidable. Therefore, post-00s in China have received far more information and expanded their vision to much greater degrees than elder generations from the 1950s to 1980s. 
 
Their emphasis on self-value and subject consciousness helps this demographic group cultivate a global vision and open cultural spirit. Meanwhile, globalization will cause Western cultures and values to impact young generations in China enormously. 
 
Since we are still in an age with the nation state as the basic unit, each nation state will foster its own characteristics in development paths, in the process of modernization, according to each nation’s distinctive history and culture. So it is unlikely to completely imitate another nation’s practices. Adhering to new development concepts and modes, and reshaping social values, will be great issues in the continuous interaction and integration between China’s dominant culture and youth culture. 
 
Accumulated from the rich history of human civilization, social culture represents the values guiding a nation to the future. It is a positive reflection of social realities, defining and influencing the development of youth culture. Young people, who constitute a developing sub-culture, always strive to make their presence known by “deviating” from mainstream cultural values. Evolving youth values also nurture factors for new cultures of the future, and will eventually feed back to, and act on, the mainstream social culture. The resultant cultural integration will point in the direction of future modernization. 
 
Yang Xiong is a research fellow from the Institute of Sociology at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.
 
 
Edited by CHEN MIRONG