The fun-loving youth from China
A decade ago, most young adults in China were a little square. These workaholics spent their free time mainly in test-prep courses and treating potential bosses to dinner. After leaving school uniforms, it was immediately into navy poly-blend suits paired with a fake LV belt. Most money made was saved for the eventual house or sent back to family still in the hometown.
The fun-loving youth of 2010 gaze at Apple laptops in Starbucks, question the need for marriage, and sport styles like “boho chic” and “mix and match” heavily influenced by South Korea and Japan but aimed at self-expression and individualism. Some might complain that they are a vain bunch, a “me generation” that respects no authority. Inevitably, they are also more creative, stylish, and vastly more interesting for marketers and other outside observers.
What China’s young people like to buy is closely scrutinized by consultants and executives throughout the globe, but I decided to take a more thematic approach in examining the question. Chinese youth have their own balance of conformism with a need for significance, and these are 10 ways in which I expect to see them to keep at it:
1. Iconoclastic Simplicity – Brand savviness is on the rise. Young people care little for the blatant status slavery of their parents and are keyed in to the nuances of what different brands represent. Purchases are now made to show taste or individuality. The logos, gaudiness, and unironic kitsch favored by older people and provincials is being shed in favor of simpler designs that allow for more creative accessorizing and matching.
2. Alternative Seeps Mainstream – Punk rockers are finally recognized beyond a couple of dive bars in Beijing. Alternatives to the cheesey schlock from Taiwan and Hong Kong are finally widely available. A multiplicity of subcultures – hip hop, punk, goth, and others – are now widely seen and recognized. Young people will have to be more imaginative in coming up with ways to be subversive.
3. Hip Holidays – Chinese are already the biggest spenders on luxury goods – per visitor – in Paris and other locations, but now young people are looking for more creative destinations in countries their parents might have dismissed as “too backward” like Vietnam and Nepal. Of course, they return with distinctive handmade scarves and wicker bags that give the upper hand in the race to be uniquely hip.
4. Online Shopping – Just as the youth prefer sharing feelings online, they increasingly like to buy things on taobao.com and other sites, which are now also attracting major brands. A new trend is to join a Shike (“testing customer” club, which brings three product samples a day. These might be a drink, a box of tissues, and a sample of luxury skincare.
5. Second-Tier Cities are Cool – Have you seen the mural covered high-rises near the art school in Chongqing? Fantastic – they go for almost 20 stories. There are now youth culture hotspots in cities well beyond Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Shenzhen. Chongqing, Chengdu, Wuhan, and Xian are all places to watch.
6. Streamlined Living – Like their Western counterparts, Chinese kids are either too lazy or too busy to clean or cook. The only time they eat home-cooked meals is when parents are cooking. Generally, food is had at restaurants or in packages bought at 7/11 or the grocery store.
7. Going Green – Hipsters realize they are living in the world’s most polluted cities. They might seek a carbon-neutral life through buying secondhand, riding a bike, or eating less meat. The LOHAS or “Lifestyle of Health and Stability” movement has met with success here. The bicycle brand Forever just commenced a grand plan to integrate a comprehensive bike rental system along Shanghai’s streets.
8. Charity Goes Mainstream – Young people are starting to care. Events, brands, and all spending will increasingly need a charity focus. Each person will increasingly give and even in small amounts the cumulative effect will be vast as it supports causes such as the growth of microfinance and relief after natural disasters. Adding to the strength of social causes is the unavailability of political outlets for youth expression.
9. Innovation from the East – Successful – rather than simply high-status – products are often introduced from Taiwan and Japan. Whether in fashion or food, other Asians are often better at matching taste requirements of the Chinese consumer. Fashion inspiration might also.
10. Inspiration from Within – Stylish people – into their thirties – might look to the post ’80s or ’90s generation for determining what is cool in areas well beyond just dressing. The rise of the internet, fashion blogs, street style pictures, and a greater general confidence means that inspiration might start to come more from the young people on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai and less from celebrities, western magazines, and Tokyo and Seoul.