This article originally appeared on Trivium UB, a Trivium China project focused on exploring the human factors driving China’s user markets.
Last year, millennials moved over to make room for a new “key demographic” as Generation Z first reached college age and began to enter the workforce. Market researchers responded with a series of profiles on the purchasing patterns and social values of the West’s newest consumer group: They’re independent and realistic, says Inc Magazine; they feel pressed for time, says LinkedIn; Bloomberg concludes they’d rather relax with a joint than a beer.
But China’s Gen Z, or “Post-00s,” are still an enigma to foreign firms. In this piece, we take a look at key studies out of China’s user experience and big data research centers, to see how China’s next online user group is set to disrupt the status quo.
Post-00s are the products of two social experiments:
1. They’re the first generation raised under the 4-2-1 family model
The 4-2-1 family structure is a result of China’s one-child policy, and describes a single nuclear family consisting of four grandparents, two parents and one child. There’s been endless speculation and analysis about the effects of this phenomenon on the Post-00 generation. That runs on both economic and psychological lines. Fewer working-aged adults will struggle to support an aging population, while only children become the sole recipient of six adults’ love and attention—and the sole bearer of the entire family’s expectations and hopes for advancement.
2. They’re China’s first generation of mobile internet natives
While Post-90 kids came into their own with Renren, Weibo and the birth of WeChat, the Post-00 generation has never known a world without WeChat, short video apps and ultra-convenient online payments.
How narcissistic are the Post-00s?
Not all of the metrics that appear in generational consumer profiles are useful. Most cohorts under the age of 55 are “addicted to their mobile phones,” “interested in expressing themselves” and “willing to spend money on their hobbies.”
Likewise, measuring levels of generational narcissism seems like another big waste of time. Doddering graybeards (like us) tend to point fingers at the next wave of consumers, leveling charges of “impulsiveness” and “egotism.” Baby Boomers were branded the “Me Generation,” and Time’s widely debunked May 2013 cover story, the “Me Me Me Generation,” took a series of pot shots at the entitlement of American Millennials.
Similar accusations have been made about China’s Post-80 and Post-90 consumers, and there’s been considerable concern that children born under the 4-2-1 dynamic will be self-centered and lack empathy. We’re not at all convinced this stuff is genuinely instructive, as the metrics used to track narcissism on such a broad scale are suspect, and the whole topic does little to deepen our understanding of the individuals using consumer products.
That said, the available data on the Post-00s paints a picture of a generation that’s more self-aware than self-involved. Some examples:
- In a recent QQ Big Data survey, Post-00s ranked the things they most wanted out of life by order of importance. At the top of the list, 61.6% of respondents said that “having warm family relationships and close friends” was most crucial to their happiness.
- At the bottom, with 4.2%? “Receiving attention and attaining popularity.”
- In another study by Tencent and the Experience Design Center, 61% of Post-00s said that they considered the interests of the group to be more important than the interests of the individual.
- The same study points to a small body of anecdotal evidence showing that early exposure to the internet, with all its differing points of view, have created a more tolerant and sympathetic generation.
Trends that matter
China’s Gen Z is using the internet to make their own money
Back in August 2018, a survey by Sequoia Capital (Chinese link) found that, on average, urban Post-00s from first to third tier cities have about $100 per month in spending cash. Naturally, the bigger the urban area, the more money the youth have to throw around—19% of Post-00s in first tier cities had RMB 1000-2000 (about $150-300) to play with. These numbers won’t be valid for long—the totals will creep gradually upwards as more of this cohort enter the workforce.
But either way, the most interesting dynamics is not the amount of cash they have, but how they’re getting it.
Traditionally, China’s school-aged kids have not been encouraged to earn their own pocket money. Rather, parents are expected to provide the financial resources and social foundation which will allow students to focus the entirety of their attention and energy on preparing for China’s ultra-competitive college entrance examinations, and then on entering the workforce.
Anything that distracts from success in the classroom, including dating, video games and summer jobs, is often discouraged. Only in cases of extreme poverty are students required to both work and attend school—a state of affairs which would cause many Chinese parents considerable embarrassment.
But the popularity of live-streaming platforms gives younger internet users a money-making channel they can leverage with minimal skills, right from their bedrooms—with tools they already have, via channels their parents can’t effectively control. Fans can present their favorite live-streamers with digital gifts that can be cashed out for real-world money, and the most successful live-streamers are picked up by talent agencies and groomed for full-time careers.
On the extreme upper end of this scale, you’ve got pint-sized influencers like Cai Luoli, with a fan base approaching 1.5 million people.
Cai Luoli mostly just skips around in cosplay cat ears doing dance numbers, pulling in mountains of viewers with a through-the-roof cute factor. But kids don’t have to be internet mega-stars to put a couple of kuai in their own pockets through casual participation. In the Sequoia survey, 74% of respondents said they engage in live-streaming either as hosts or viewers.
That’s not to say that Post-00s are suddenly not dependent on their parents. We’re simply pointing out that there’s now a path to increased financial independence for teens and tweens where there once was none, and that’s a game-changer both socially and economically.
They’re more interested in striking out on their own.
After decades of doctor-lawyer-engineer traditionalism, China’s next-gen workforce is willing to blaze its own trail: 15% of Post-00 survey respondents in Tier-3 cities and above said they’re already interested in entrepreneurship as a career path. They’re also more interested in careers in artistic-focused fields—according to QQ Big Data (Chinese link), almost 25% are chasing a career in the arts. That’s new.
Sequoia Capital concludes that this is due to a higher level of education among parents—45% of respondents said both of their parents had a college degree, while an additional 43% said at least one of their parents did—and that certainly must play a role, but we suspect that’s not the whole story. Other factors are likely to include:
1. Reaching adulthood in one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.
China’s economic uptrend is reflected in the high levels of optimism among China’s youth: 76% of Post-00s said they were either “very optimistic” or “fairly optimistic” about the future.
2. China’s startup boom, and the central government’s adoption of “innovation” as one of the central tenets of China’s new socialist development (Financial Times in 2016):
“Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has urged local governments to implement policies encouraging “mass entrepreneurship and innovation” and to promote the growth of start-up companies. The state has set aside more than RMB 2.1 trillion to invest in supporting emerging entrepreneurs in the technology sector…”
3. Post-00s have more agency in the decisions that shape their own lives than any other Chinese generation in recent memory.
Chinese authority figures are moving gradually away from “because I said so” approach to parenting and education, and encouraging debate and shared opinions:
- 29% of Post-00’s parents say they’re willing to listen to their children’s opinions, vs. 19% of Post-90’s parents.
- 53% of Post-00’s teachers say they welcome debate from their students, vs. 48% of Post-90’s teachers.
- 66% of Post-00s say that they make the majority of the decisions that affect their lives.
4. Self-confidence is valued.
QQ’s study indicates that “self-confidence” is the second most approved of trait in Post-00s, after “kindness.”
They express themselves by getting really into the things they get into
A Tencent study charts a stat-inspired path through the Post-00 mindset. Long story short, the study posits that through frequent use of social apps, Post-00s are exposed to a wide variety of people and pursuits, and so they discover their own interests early on. Once some subject has grabbed their attention, mobile internet provides the tools, tutorials and social groups they need to immerse themselves in their new hobby.
This immersion is more than just escapism, it’s a method of self-expression. In fact, 72% of surveyed Post-00s said that cultivating a deep understanding in one’s field of personal interest, and making accomplishments in that field, is a better expression of the self than either career achievements or consumption.
So all of this video blogging, live-streaming, fan-fiction writing, manga drawing and video game level building is not really just “leisure,” it’s a form of soul-searching.
That might explain the determination among the Post-00s cohort to jump over any barrier to entry. If there’s any financial impediment to getting involved—mom doesn’t have enough money for drum lessons, say, or dad won’t increase your allowance—this generation is motivated to find the resources on its own. Some 73% of survey respondents agreed that when there’s a will, they’ll find a way.
They judge brands and influencers the same way they judge friends
Post-00s take the same curiosity they apply to their hobbies, and allocate a little of it towards researching the backstories of the brands they care about. What’s more, they reserve their faith and trust for brands they respect and admire.
This may come as a surprise if you’ve been inundated with articles rhapsodizing about the explosion of influencer marketing in China, but this deep digging, combined with a certain savviness brought about through digital nativity, means Post-00s are actually less likely to trust influencers than you might expect—especially those influencers who they find to be inauthentic and overly commercial.
Tencent’s study claims that China’s high school sophomores are well aware that the relationship between key online influencers and their fans is a material one: only 16% of Post-00 survey respondents agreed that “the more similar a KOL is to me, the more their product recommendations should be believed over a celebrity’s product recommendations.”
QQ’s study results concur: they found that while a celebrity’s physical attractiveness might spark initial interest among Post-00s, it’s not enough to engender lasting loyalty. Teens stick it out for those celebs with genuine talent, and become loyal to those who they believe possess “moral character.”
The common thread
Just as marketers in the west have given each generation its own moniker—Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, Gen Z—Chinese marketers have created labels that sum up the world view of each Chinese consumer generation.
Gen-80 was popularly described as mensao, which translates to something like “outwardly skeptical but inwardly passionate.” Gen-90 was termed satuo, “free and unconstrained.” And Gen-00 was dubbed aijuebulei, “you never feel tired when you’re doing something you love,” which might be better translated as the Focused Generation.
We think the description is apt: depth of focus is the thread underlying most of this cohort’s key characteristics, as described in the numerous surveys we dissected above. Gen-00 kids don’t just want to watch, they want to participate. They don’t just want to follow, they want to understand. They’re willing to spend the time and effort needed to do so.
And this is critical: they want brands to show the same level of focus and dedication that they do.
Although the west’s Gen Z and China’s Post-00s come from very different technological ecosystems, there is certainly some crossover in terms of personal values. A respect for authenticity stands out as a common denominator. A certain amount of pragmatism and highly-honed BS-detection also stand out in both user groups.
The truth is, a lot of these insights generate more questions than they answer, and it’s still early days in terms of really understanding this segment of China’s consumer market. But here’s some food for thought, based on what we do know:
Be equal, not aspirational: This isn’t a generation that constructs self-identify via Gucci sunglasses, so placing your brand just out of reach and then asking Post-00s to take pride in jumping for it probably isn’t the best approach. Instead, explore the effectiveness of creating a brand that interacts with the market as an equal, rather than a superior.
Give your market something to delve into: Post-00s want to get to know you. They want to know what you stand for, where you come from and what it means to buy your stuff. Give them a way to do that.
Be diligent and single-minded: Focus on the depth of your specialization, and show pride in being best at what you do.