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New waves in youth studies amid social change

LI CHUNLING | 2017-06-15 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Young employees of Three Squirrels, the largest e-commerce company for snack food in China, work on the China’s Single’s Day. Originally a rebellious youth culture, Single’s Day has now been coopted into commercial culture.

Youth studies have been a crucial as well as relatively independent part of sociological studies in China since their resumption in 1979. High-speed economic growth and rapid social change have brought about changes in people’s attitudes and ideas.

The youth, represented by the post-80s and post-90s generations, are the standard-bearers for new trends in society, which makes them research subjects for sociologists trying to chart the future direction of social development.

China’s rapid social and economic development in the last 10 years presents the youth group with unprecedented opportunities, challenges and new issues. Although sociological youth studies cover all aspects of youth development, its major focus in the last 10 years has been the ways in which rapid changes in society have affected youth and young people’s response.


Generational, social differentiation
The last 10 years of youth studies revealed two major social characteristics of contemporary young: prominent generational differentiation and strong social stratification.

On the one hand, research suggests that there are significant generational differences between the young, the middle-aged and the elderly. In fact, within the younger group, post-80s are also different from the post-90s. Even within the post-80s group, the pre-85 cohort differs from those born afterward.

On the other hand, the social stratification among the youth group is quite obvious, which can be seen from the division of research subjects in youth studies. A large number of youth studies were carried out targeting studies on two major young groups:college students or recent graduates—including white-collar workers in cities—and young migrant workers.

Young migrant workers together with college students and recent graduates make up the two largest subgroups. The two groups are in significantly different situations in terms of educational experience, employment, living situation and future opportunity of development. Buzzwords in mass media, such as “second-generation rich” and “second-generation poor,” clearly reveal the polarization of wealth among China’s youth. Family origin is considered to be an important source of this social stratification, which is called the “competition of family background.”

In my edited book Experience, Attitudes and Social Transition: A Sociological Study of the Post-80s Generation, I concluded that the post-80s generation is marked with the double brands of generation and stratification. Generational commonalities have not broken the reproduction pattern of social inequality. And the cross-stratum generational culture cannot break through the segmentation of stratum in the realm of social life.

Urban-rural inequality and social stratification have influenced the education opportunities of the young generation, which make the phenomenon of education stratification remarkable in China. The educational stratification eventually results in the differentiation of employment and economic status of young people in society.

In the market competition of modern society, the educational background of a person plays a crucial role in determining one’s future social and economic status. However, the inequality of education opportunities puts children from rural families and vulnerable groups at a disadvantage, which strengthens the reproduction of social stratification. A large number of empirical studies on career and social mobility among young people suggest that the reproduction of social and economic status causes the social stratification of youth. Also, some studies indicate that social stratification begins in childhood. Particularly, disparities among children in terms of access to resources caused by the dual urban-rural structure have created divisions.


Internet, youth
In the last 20 years, the internet developed rapidly, affecting every aspect of young people’s lives. The internet and its influences on the youth have become important topics of youth studies. The contemporary generation of young people is called the internet generation. Young scholars, from multiple perspectives, have studied how the rise of internet society influences the life, idea, action and culture of the youth group.

Some studies indicate that virtual online communities for young people possess the function of media, entertainment and social contact while displaying the characteristics of younger age of membership, democratic activities, pluralistic cultures and pragmatic functions. The young people interact and exchange their feelings and ideas through online communities, forming a unique culture. 

Other studies note that there appears to be an identity crisis in the internet era. A tension exists between identities in the virtual world and in reality. Uncertainty and increasing obstructions are seen in the social identities of young people.

Meanwhile, online consumption, dating, entertainment and political participation have become the new fashions and trends of youth lifestyle. While bringing about entirely new life experiences, the new lifestyle also significantly affects the socialization of the young. The rise of the internet and the changing way in which social information is collected and processed greatly increase the uncertainties of both the process and the results of the socialization of the young. 

In addition, China’s Single’s Day, an internet culture for young people, has attracted much attention from scholars, who pay special interest to the influence of commercialization and consumerism on youth culture. Single’s Day has evolved into a shopping festival, reflecting the coopting of a rebellious youth subculture by commercial interests, which is just one of many stories like this.

The post-80s culture, which was characterized by rebellion in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has been rapidly and comprehensively commercialized in the last 10 years. The typical cases of this include “youth literature” and “online literature.”

Many scholars also pay much attention to the phenomenon of online fenqing, who are also known as online “angry youth” or young cynics, when discussing online youth behaviors and their effects. The community of online angry youth has grown rapidly in the online virtual spaces as internet spreads. In the initial stage, many scholars viewed this phenomenon as a form of grassroots political participation. Meanwhile, scholars have also noticed the extreme feelings and irrational expressions of these young people especially their verbal violence. Some scholars suggest rational appeals regarding social issues in reality underlie the so-called “irrational” behavior of young people. These appeals reflect the existing international and domestic problems in China’s social development.


Marriage, love
The differentiation of generational ideas and behaviors caused by rapid changes in social economy is particularly noticeable in terms of marriage and love, which are hotspot issues in youth studies. Scholars notice that an “anxiety of marriage and love” is commonly felt by young people as the result of “being badgered to get married by parents” or the phenomenon of “leftover women.” This Chinese marriage anxiety is actually a conflict of ideas on marriage between different generations. The ratio of single young people to young people of marriageable age has gradually grown, exacerbating anxieties about marriage and love.

Some young people choose to be single when they are above the normal age for marriage, which is more common in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai. The population of unmarried men and women in their late 20s is quite large.

Multiple factors, such as demographic structure, economic situation, social concepts, communication means and family pressure underlie the phenomenon of anxiety of marriage and love.

Studies show that new patterns of marriage and love that diverge from traditional ones have emerged in contemporary young people. An analysis of data on female marriage status in 1990, 2000 and 2010 indicates new trends in terms of the age difference between spouses. The traditional marriage pattern in which the husband is older than the wife has changed slightly while the number of marriages in which the wife is older than the husband has increased considerably, which may be related to such factors as the high male-to-female birth ratio and changing ideas about marriage.

“Flash marriages” and “Flash divorces” are becoming more frequent. Cohabitation has also become an undercurrent for young single people to pursue ideal marriage. The importance of economic status in choosing a spouse has grown and prenuptial agreements have become an undesirable but inevitable alternative for young people when trying to reduce the risk of love and marriage.

In addition, the youth and adolescence have more positive attitudes toward sex. They value more the rights of an individual and hold more positive attitudes towards the value of sex, pursuing the unification of sex and marriage, which gives rise to pluralistic attitudes about sex. The increasingly open attitudes toward sex also make the young people more tolerant of sexual behaviors that were traditionally forbidden, including extramarital affairs, premarital sex and homosexuality. These unorthodox sexual behaviors have also attracted the attention of scholars of youth studies.

Some scholars have observed the influence of social and demographic change on marriage and love among young people in rural China. The gender imbalance and population mobility put strong pressure on the young males in the rural areas in terms of marriage, creating large numbers of rural bachelors.

In addition to the aforementioned phenomena, youth sociology also deals with issues regarding children from one-child households under China’s family-planning policy as well as the values and political attitudes of the youth.

Li Chunling is from the Institute of Sociology, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.