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White-collar society steers consumption upgrade

ZHU DI | 2018-08-02 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


When spending, white collars now value quality, knowledge consumption and experience.

China is undergoing profound transformations in economic and industrial structure. In 2015, the value added of the tertiary industry accounted for more than 50 percent of the GDP for the first time. The share kept increasing in 2016, reaching 51.6 percent. Since employment in the service sector is more flexible than in industry and agriculture, this change in the industrial structure reflects a different occupational structure. Among non-agricultural employees, white collars, primarily brain workers, have outnumbered blue collars, mainly manual workers.

Data from the National Bureau of Statistics show that the percentage of primary industry employees among the entire working population dropped from 51 to 28 percent from 1996 to 2015. That of the secondary industry climbed from 24 to 29 percent, and that of the tertiary industry jumped from 26 to 42 percent.

According to a comprehensive investigation into China’s social conditions conducted by the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the number of white collars in the national working population kept an upward trend, rising from 32 percent in 2006 to 38 percent in 2015. In 2013, white collars accounted for 62 percent of the urban working population, and the figure was 64 percent in 2015. Chinese urban areas have led the way to the “white-collar society” and initialized the transformation of the occupational structure.


White-collar society
The white-collar society as a new stage of social development has far-reaching implications for people’s living benefits and the consumer culture at large. In this stage, as the white-collar and middle-income groups continue to grow, so do their economic and social statuses and discourse power.
Driven and influenced by the consumption of the white-collar and middle-income groups, the larger society can no longer rest content with cheap, popular consumer goods. Instead, material products and services with reliable quality, creative design and high cost-effectiveness are favored, resulting in a consumption upgrade.

Regarding social development stages, socioeconomic development before reform and opening-up featured a “unit system” and planned economy. In the unit society, consumption was planned: the quantity and categories of spending were restricted by planned supplies.

From the implementation of reform and opening-up to the dawn of the 21st century, productivity and economic institutions were emancipated, industrialization and urbanization continued to accelerate, and the population of industrial and migrant workers increased. The blue-collar society was characterized by mass consumption. Abundant supplies for consumption allowed people more freedom in the spending process. They enjoyed an easier life through plentiful, inexpensive and standardized consumer goods.

Since the commencement of the 21st century, particularly after the first decade, urban areas in China have led the way to the white-collar society and promoted the consumption upgrade. Not only are people satisfied with the easy life brought by consumption, but they also seek pleasure and experience. They take delight in owning material products, while raising their requirements for a variety of consumer services.

In the new stage, professions and the stratum structure change more dramatically. The occupational stratum comprising employees of business services, self-employed groups, urban white collars and new technical workers is more dynamic. Here, the service industry is the focus of employment and business startups. In particular, these workers are inseparable from innovative developments like “Internet Plus,” the platform economy and the sharing economy.

These workers are either young or possess impressive cultural capital. Despite low economic capital, most of them come from urban families with strong familial support. These vibrant white-collar and youth groups not only supply services, but also constitute a crucial force for propelling the consumption upgrade and cultivating new consumer tastes.

From the blue-collar to white-collar society, the principal contradiction facing Chinese society has also evolved. The Sixth Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee defined the principal social contradiction as one between people’s ever-growing material and cultural needs and the low level of production. Accordingly, industrialization, urbanization and mass consumption were regarded as the main channels connected to solving the contradiction in the following three decades.

Not until the 19th CPC National Congress was the principal social contradiction changed into one between unbalanced, inadequate development and people’s ever-growing need for a better life. The new principal contradiction facing Chinese society reflects people’s cognition of living benefits and demands in the new stage of social development, which has set higher standards not just for material life, but for democracy, rule of law, equality, justice, security and the environment.

Future social development will be subject to the penetrating influence of artificial intelligence and new internet technologies. Low-level and repetitive jobs will be gradually taken over by machines; industrial and occupational labor division will be more elaborate and even fragmented; the mode of working will be less fettered by structures and systems; and career development will be more tightly bonded to interest, emotion and lifestyle.


Consumption features
In the white-collar society, consumption has tilted from flaunting to self-orientated, from material to cultural, from commodity possession to service experience. In the current stage, white collars have exhibited the following features in spending.

First, quality is valued. In contemporary society, importance is attached to the quality of commodities as well as services. While innovative services such as bike sharing and online takeout make people’s life and work more convenient, efficient and fun, traditional services like restaurants, cafés, tourism, housekeeping and decoration are covering more extensive fields of life and wider ranges of consumers. Consumers are willing to spend more money to buy safer, more reliable and personalized services.

Moreover, knowledge consumption is getting more popular. Recent years have seen people’s growing enthusiasm for cultural consumption. When it comes to cultural taste, people of higher social strata have an apparent preference for high culture. With the internet as the platform, “paying for knowledge” is increasingly accepted by consumers and gradually becoming a new trend in cultural consumption.

From industrialized society to the information era, and from the blue-collar to white-collar society, knowledge is not only the core competitiveness in the field of production, but is also an important medium for people to meet cultural and recreational needs and self-cultivation purposes.

In addition, experience is stressed. As the trend of self-oriented consumption goes up, experience is increasingly regarded as a source of pleasure and comfort, or as a purpose. It has been evidenced that contemporary consumers value both the quality of life and the good experience of services. Consumers’ pursuits of novelty and excitement, growth and education, and happiness and enjoyment, demonstrate strong cultural creativity, or “imagination economy.” Typical experiential consumption practices include tourism and urban leisure culture.


Policy suggestions
In order to boost consumption and improve the quality of life, efforts should be made to perfect policy institutions affecting income distribution, social security and industrial development, as well as mechanisms to coordinate economic and social policies.

In terms of income distribution reform, the service industry should be developed vigorously to expand the white-collar and middle-income groups. The historical experiences of developed countries indicate that the service sector is a vital channel to create jobs and foster the said groups. Emphasis should be laid on modern services like finance, information, cultural creativity, tourism and exposition, commerce and trade, and human capital in order to advance such emerging services as e-commerce and sharing economy.

Youth employment and entrepreneurship and diverse patterns of employment should also be encouraged to provide youths with more opportunities for upward mobility. Opportunities presented by industrial restructuring and the rapid growth of services along with the macro trend of the internet society should be seized to actively help university students, urban young people and new generations of migrant workers change their ideas of employment and develop professional skills.

In addition, policy, capital and experienced support should be offered to facilitate young people’s business startup endeavors, and fault-tolerance and exit mechanisms should be established to broaden the space for their development. Regarding diverse patterns of employment, mechanisms for talent growth and mobility can be built online and offline to raise youths’ voices in social issues.

It is likewise important to promote product innovation and develop the mid- to high-end markets, thereby meeting the requirements of the consumption upgrade. Enterprises should devote efforts to mid- to high-end consumer markets, innovative design and quality so as to drive product research and development, reduce costs and upgrade household durable goods. Personalized and differentiated life services are necessary to enrich and optimize consumer experience and improve people’s life quality through commodities and services.

Last but not least, service consumption should be accelerated to build a better spending environment. Currently, service supply in industries like food and beverage, tourism, leisure, real estate and finance should be improved. It not only concerns service quality and attitude, but also consumers’ food, property and personal safety. The low-level service supply will hinder the growth of service consumption.

The government should beef up efforts to regulate market order and sternly punish those jeopardizing food safety and practicing telecommunication fraud. Enterprises should join to improve product and service supply as well as the consumer environment, thus better meeting the requirements of the consumption upgrade.


Zhu Di is an associate research fellow from the Institute of Sociology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.