Issue: 2010: Vol. 9, No. 1

China’s 80’s Generation: Working for the Future

Article Author(s)

Rory Zimmerman

Avatar photo
Rory Byrne Zimmerman works in Beijing. She is grateful to her friends and colleagues whose opinions and personal experiences contributed greatly to this article. 
2010: Vol. 9, No. 1
Newsletter Signup
Subscription Form

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

China's 80's Generation: Working for the Future Chinese born in the 1980’s, known as 80 hou (baling hou in putong hua), are famous to Westerners as the first generation born during the enforcement of China’s one-child policy. The 80 hou is a generation of more than 200 million only children with common burdens and opportunities. Their thinking is formed by traditional Chinese culture and Confucian morals, but they are beginning their careers in a nearly full-blown market guided by rules of the WTO. Many of them are single-handedly responsible for providing financially for their parents’ retirement. As the 80 hou fulfill their responsibilities and accomplish their social goals, their unique perspective is sure to influence trends in the global economy.

For the past decade it has been in fashion to refer to the 80’s cohort as the “little emperors,” implying a generation of self-important only children who have chipped away at traditional Chinese filial piety with excessive demands for material goods that doting parents and grandparents are only too happy to provide. Indeed, some

80 hou in Beijing have lived up to the “little emperor” stereotype. Many come from families that gained wealth and residential property portfolios after receiving government reimbursement for vacating hutongs demolished to pave the way for Beijing’s rapid urbanization. These families gained financial security by investing the reimbursements into newly developed apartments in the late 1990s, in some cases purchasing multiple units. As prices of apartments in Beijing escalated over the past ten years, many became set for life by cashing in one property while living in another, and renting a third unit to produce a stable income. Beijingers with such luck have been known to allow their only children to lead a leisurely existence. They can choose to work if they want to have more spending money, but there is no need for them to provide financially for themselves or their parents. However, this leisure class of fortunate 80 hou, said to have never tasted bitterness, represents a tiny sliver of the 80 hou demographic. The vast majority of the 80 hou honor their traditional role and work to carry out their responsibility within the family unit. As such, the majority of this generation is under serious pressure to fulfill the role of breadwinner for their families while at the same time attempting to advance in their careers and achieve their social goals.

80 hou remember the rarity of consumer goods throughout their formative years. China’s economic transition was just getting under way, and scarcities created by central planning still prevailed. As a result, they are in tune with the anxieties of their elders’ generation, prone to working long hours, and attentive to saving more than half of their monthly income. They also are the first generation to grow up exposed to Korean and American pop culture, and many are die-hard fans of Michael Jackson, *NSYNC and Guns N’ Roses. But while they admire the boldness and free-spirited attitude of Westerners, their identity is ingrained by Chinese tradition. Educated 80 hou are well read in the Chinese classics, and they express great pride in their country. The 80 hou were shocked and appalled when they were first exposed to Western criticism in 2008 when the media highlighted protesters who defiled the 2008 Olympic Torch relay to China. Chinese 80 hou viewed with disdain the cultural tendency of French and other Western peoples to protest. Protesting in France is a political and cultural norm for communication between the people and the government, but this Western style did not translate well. Many Chinese found the protests absurd and offensive. In response, the 80 hou rallied together in online communities to express their great love of country and the dignity inherent in traditional Chinese culture. 80 hou also enjoy the ability to indulge in online shopping and entertainment. Fashion has become a passion for this generation, and the Louis Vuitton logo has made great inroads into 80 hou as a status symbol, yet they still recognize fine Chinese cuisine as the greatest luxury in the world.

As the 80 hou grew up, their education was the center of attention for grandparents and parents within the home. Everyone’s resources were put toward advancing the child’s education and skill. As young adults they were able to enter the workforce throughout a period of openness, which included China’s acceptance into the WTO. Their first steps in establishing careers were taken during a period of economic boom. They have experienced greater opportunity at the start of their careers than most of the 90s generation probably will enjoy. The 90 hou are entering the workforce at a time of global economic recession. They do not remember past scarcities because their experiences have been shaped by a period of prosperous economic development and urbanization. However, the 90 hou may face more scarcity as adults entering the job market than the 80 hou.

80 hou are an important generation for their experience of entering the workforce at the moment when the Chinese economy became widely acknowledged as a driving force of the world market. Furthermore, 80 hou have come of age in an era of freedom to move, study, work and earn. Career advancement is obtainable in the modern market, but the tendency of young professionals to expect consistent praise, higher salaries or managerial positions–often cited as characteristic of America’s Gen Y– is antithetical to mainstream Chinese culture. While 80 hou have big dreams and high hopes for themselves, they are not likely to directly ask their bosses for new opportunities. Instead they pursue practical ways of preparing themselves for career advancement, like studying new skills or learning new trades.

Since Beijing has developed into a modern metropolis, millions of the 80s generation have migrated to the capital seeking better paying jobs and more access to international culture. This generation shares a common dream of home ownership, but the price of buying an apartment home in Beijing or Shanghai is so exorbitant that few can manage such a feat without financial contributions from their families. Average gross salaries for successful white-collar workers can range from 1,000 RMB to 3,000 RMB a month (about $140 – $400)1.The going rate for residential property in Beijing is at least 16,900 RMB ($2,500) per square meter2, and the price of a 90 square meter apartment can be higher than 1.9 million RMB ($279,400)3. The mainstream mindset of the 80 hou is to qualify for a good paying white-collar job, work long hours, and save most of one’s income so as to eventually buy an apartment. The large rent-to-price ratio (approximately 1:546) does not deter people from pursuing investment in the real estate market or viewing it as a sound investment. The rent-to-price ratio compares the cost of renting a home to the cost of purchasing one. Buying a home is paramount because it meets the financial and social needs of adult Chinese today. After they buy a home, they can provide a place for their retired parents, marry and have a baby. Afterwards, savings will be directed towards giving their only child the best chance possible to succeed in education and career.

Tens of millions of the 80 hou are not white-collar professionals. They are young men and women who migrated from the countryside into China’s major cities to work as servers in restaurants (fu wu yuan in putong hua) or guards at apartment complexes (bao an). They came from subsistence farming societies and moved to the eastern cities to earn a near subsistence wage. The meager salaries are saved to provide their families with health care. Illness can devastate these farming families. Middle-aged parents and young adult children work far from home all year, saving their salaries and pooling their earnings at Spring Festival family reunions. These working poor do not have enough money for a college education and do not qualify for white-collar jobs. They carry on a long-standing tradition of living for the next generation, which is an all-too-common experience for the peoples of developing nations. Parents work throughout their lifetimes, saving for basic nourishment and the advancement of their children’s education. They do not entertain the idea that they will climb the social ladder themselves, but save their money to provide for family health care and direct their hopes toward the future of their progeny. For the 80 hou working poor, the menial jobs available in the city provide important perks such as free room and board. As the famous Chinese idiom proclaims: “To the people food is heaven.” The migrant working poor of Beijing may earn an average of only a few hundred RMB a month, but they are able to save the majority of their pay for their families because rent and food are provided by their employers.

Despite the pressure to provide for their families and a high-level of competition for jobs and educational advancement, many individuals of the 80 hou pursue their career ideals with gusto. Three such individuals are profiled here. They come from a variety of backgrounds including highly educated families, subsistence farmers, and well-connected families. Each of the three has experienced times of scarcity and has suffered anxiety over finances, some more than others. What these three 80 hou share is their extraordinary attitude toward life in their quest to provide for their families while achieving their own goals. Each has taken whatever life presented and pursued individual social advancement. Each depends upon him or herself to provide financial security, and considers marriage a future prospect and not something to depend upon for social success. These three are not overcome by the pressure to provide, and they are far from complacent about their careers. In fact, they are passionate about fulfilling their ambitious dreams. Their individual stories follow.

Helen Zou

Helen Zou was born in a town southwest of Chongqing municipality. Her father was a well-known local lawyer and her mother a homemaker. In her youth, Helen assisted her father as a scribe, using her good handwriting to copy legal documents for his practice. Copy machines were a rarity, and when available, far too expensive. Her father was most impressed by her talent and intelligence. He encouraged her to pursue law or medicine, saying that a career as a lawyer, teacher or doctor was most suitable for women. She was intent upon following in her father’s footsteps and studying law, but later, as his health failed, she wanted to become a doctor, so she could cure him of his ailments. However, he died the year before she was to choose a college major. Since she could no longer cure her father, she no longer found it practical to study medicine, and as her understanding of the red tape complexities of China’s legal system grew, she gradually lost interest in pursuing a law degree.

Helen often read English novels and watched American movies. She had a great desire to travel to foreign countries. She remained at the top of her class throughout middle school and high school. When the time came to choose a college major, Helen chose English language. She graduated from Chongqing Three Gorges University in 2004, and had a secure job offer teaching English at Dalian University. She declined the offer and went to Beijing in search of more exposure to international culture. She started her work experience in Beijing as an employee of a Chinese state-owned company. In 2006, Helen began working as the assistant to an entrepreneur of a high-tech Chinese company preparing to make its IPO on NASDAQ. In this growing company she had the chance to participate in the functioning of projects from IPO to HR restructuring. Currently, she works for this company as an investor relations specialist. Helen enjoys being close to information, constantly aware of company affairs and industry trends. She recognizes the importance of delivering the right messages to investors. Her goal is to complete an MBA degree abroad to increase her understanding of finance and business ethics. Her career goal is to be the investor relations executive preparing Chinese companies for their IPOs on Western stock exchanges by overhauling their financial systems management and advertising these opportunities to investors.

Despite her strong work ethic and obvious talent in disseminating bilingual financial communication, she does not receive sufficient training for advancement opportunities from her company. Most booming Chinese companies have not yet developed a framework for conducting career mobility or training incentives for employees. The majority of employees in successful Chinese companies are content to have a secure job with decent pay in the big city. They do not feel the need to push for more opportunity. Those who are anxious to elevate their positions must constantly face the disappointment that their long hours and good efforts will not afford them advanced progression into managerial or decision-making roles. Helen is currently preparing for the TOEFL and GMAT examinations, studying in the evenings after work and on weekends. She will use her savings, accumulated over the last six years, to support her dream of studying abroad and attending an American university to complete her MBA degree. She must excel in these exams, since being awarded a scholarship by a foreign university is a financial imperative for her to accomplish her dream. As a 28-year-old, single woman in China, her career ambitions are countered by her responsibility to provide for her widowed mother. Helen must be able to afford her educational goals while providing for herself and her mother. The portion of her income not directed toward necessities and savings is spent trying her hand at the Chinese stock market. She views such investment as a hobby and not as a resource for financial gain. Such play enriches her experience in calculating risk in the Chinese stock market.

Helen considers marriage a future concern. Although she enjoys dating in her free time, she views such interaction as no more than interesting and fun. Helen believes that as she achieves her career goals, she will come into contact with a most suitable mate. She is certain he will be a dynamic individual with lots of international perspective. She looks forward to the day she can settle down with financial security and provide a stimulating home environment for her future family to thrive.

Yongbin Fang

Yongbin Fang was born to subsistence farmers in Anhui Province. His parents were born in the 1950s and as adolescents in the 1960s survived periods of starvation by chewing on seeds that they randomly found while sifting through the dust of the barren earth. Their parents, Fang’s grandparents, were tormented by purges and eventually defeated by starvation. In the fertile 1980s, Fang was born into a family with survivors’ spirit. He grew up helping his family reap the corn during the harvest season and attending the local school in the off-season. It was there that he gained literacy and studied basic mathematics. As a kid in the 1990s, he gazed wistfully at the skyscrapers towering off in the distance. Often the men of his village went to the city to work as construction laborers. They always returned home with cash for their families.

Fang dreamed of becoming an architect. At the age of 17, he left school and went to Suzhou to be a carpenter’s apprentice. He worked for the whole year, learning the trade and earning only room and board. During the Spring Festival family reunion at the end of that year, his parents told him it was time to earn an income, so he followed his uncle and father to work as a carpenter on construction sites in burgeoning Beijing. Since he was young and nourished by his dream of becoming an architect, he proved to be a fast learner. The boss took notice of this and sent him to work as a mechanic at the garage he owned. There Fang mastered new trades and decided to invest in getting his driver’s license. This new skill enabled him to earn a higher income by working as a bus driver for private kindergartens in Beijing. The savings he accumulated by working a better paying job was immediately invested into his educational advancement. He put himself through university while working full-time, earning a degree in interior design. The foreign English teachers working at the Beijing kindergartens often sought Fang’s help and friendship. He realized the next useful skill for him to master was English language. So again he used his income to support his educational advancement. He completed an independent study program at Beijing Foreign Studies University and successfully passed all the exams to earn a diploma in English language and literature. He used his new skills by working as a translator for Chinese public relations firms, and prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games he landed a job as a translator for a German news corporation that conducts all their China reporting in English, as it is more commonly spoken in China than German. He continues to adapt his skills to creatively strategize his financial security. Currently, he takes every opportunity to learn about professional photography so that he can advance his career into higher realms of the media industry.

In 2007, his parents and uncle combined their savings to help Fang purchase a small apartment in east Beijing. This investment provided Fang a secure living situation to support his career in Beijing. They hope that the money invested in the home purchase will prove to be an asset to them all in the future. Fang saves 80 percent of his monthly income to put toward basic necessities for his parents and himself in the future. His mother is still a housewife and subsistence farmer in the countryside. His father and uncle are migrant laborers who earn petty cash on construction sites. They are reaching the age of retirement, which to Fang means “forcibly jobless” because no one wants to hire elderly construction workers. He is not convinced the social insurance system will guarantee security for him and his family throughout their elderly years. The pension and subsidies directly accessible to his family are too low to rely upon in times of illness. Fang is responsible for providing for himself, his parents and his uncle over the next decades. Such responsibility leads to his high propensity to save, as well as hard work, will power and self-sacrifice. As his family has supported him, he will support them.

There is little time and few resources left for Fang to start a family of his own. Fang’s peers in the hometown married in their early 20s and have raised large families. Fang has consistently resisted social pressures to fit in with his hometown peers and return there to marry a local girl. He centers his life on providing for his family and pursuing a professional career. He finds the girlfriends of his generation to be overly demanding. They require the suitor to own an apartment, and if that is achieved, then they chirp on about the location and quality of apartment necessary for them to agree to marriage. Men of the 80s generation must achieve a high level of material success to please the modern Chinese woman. Fang hopes to marry a woman with perspective and goals similar to his own. To afford such a wife and then have a child would be a privilege, but for now such a lifestyle is a luxury just out of his reach. At the age of 30, he still has plenty of time. Fang will continue to pursue his career ambitions and uphold his ideals for family life, making progress step-by-step. As the famous saying goes, a journey of a thousand “li” starts with a single step.

Candace Sun

Candace Sun was born in Anshan City, Liaoning Province. Her maternal grandfather was an engineer and her paternal grandfather a battalion commander in the Chinese Army. Her parents did well working in factories, and in the 1990s found success as small business owners. Candace’s parents encouraged her to learn traditional Chinese arts and she excels at painting and calligraphy. Ever at the top of her class, she often won school competitions. In elementary school, she was the champion of an academic competition and was awarded a set of the four Chinese classics of literature. She cherished these great works and spent her free time reading the classics and learning other tales of Chinese philosophy.

In 2000, Candace was accepted into Beijing Wuzi University. There she earned a degree in economics. After graduating at the top of her class, she went to work full time at the company that had provided her college internship. She began working in the art department of a Chinese online gaming company as a professional 3D artist. Her skills in calligraphy and her knowledge of the classics and Chinese mythology were greatly appreciated by her employers. She provided real value to the company’s product line, so once the company launched their IPO on NASDAQ, she was one of the original team members to be handsomely rewarded in stock options. Candace advanced to middle management leadership positions and received English language training from her company. Her ability to clearly express herself in English, and the value she contributes to the development of company product lines provides her more certain opportunity for career advancement.

In 2009, she put her assets into purchasing a fine apartment in one of Beijing’s up-and-coming residential neighborhoods. She views home ownership as a long-term investment and as a way to provide for her parents’ retirement. They live together in her apartment home, carrying for her nourishment as she fulfills the role of breadwinner. Candace’s career goal is to become a senior professional manager for the company. She has successfully passed all graduate admissions examinations to enroll in the MBA program at the University of International Business & Economics in Beijing. She will attend graduate school part-time, while she continues to work full-time in the field of 3D design. She intends develop her skills to add value to her company’s product line and is enthusiastic about contributing to making her company become one of the leading online game companies in the world. She enjoys her work and joyfully pursues her career. At 28 years old, she feels no pressure to marry anytime soon. She has a laissez-faire, or traditional Chinese Taoist wu-wei, go-with-the-flow attitude towards marriage. She has faith that a suitable partner will come into her life as she authentically pursues her dreams.


China’s 80s generation is bound together by common burdens and opportunities. They endured serious pressure to excel at rote-learning throughout their secondary and college education. As they find their way in the robust modern economy, those with the best credentials have great chances to try a wide variety of positions and job descriptions. There is room for them to pursue entrepreneurial business endeavors or to devote their daily lives to growing Chinese multinational companies. It’s characteristic for the 80s generation to work long hours and respect traditional protocol for obedience in the work place. Those who want to advance their professional careers at a faster rate to higher levels will benefit from training that stimulates their creative problem solving skills and nurtures their confidence in taking innovative approaches towards career development. Those who proactively attain the credentials needed to advance to higher levels of industry, by saving and investing in advanced training, will be prepared to take new job opportunities when they are presented to them. In this way, they may make their dreams into reality, support their families, and infuse resiliency throughout the Chinese economy.

  1. Interview with Beijing local, Emily Wang.
  2. “Beijing’s housing prices dropped 8000 yuan” China Daily, By Cai Muyuan (
  3. “Homebuyers reeling from Beijing property measures”, Mon, May 17, 2010, AFP,