China's Millennials Are Dealing With a Quarter-Life Crisis

Chinese millennials are brutally honest about life's pressures and are finding satirical ways to talk about them.

Chongqing, China. Courtesy of Ming Chen/Unsplash

Starting in early 2016, a cultural phenomenon called sang entered the online conversation among those born between 1990 and 1999 in China. These young people report that they don’t have purpose or hope in life, have low motivation to work and often feel sorry for themselves.

China’s millennials fall into two distinct generations—post-80s and post-90s—which correspond to the decade in which they were born. In a report on the sang culture published in June 2017 by UC Headlines, a media site owned by Alibaba Group, half of those born between 1980 and 1989 (the post-80s generation), have identified themselves as sang.

Being single, high housing prices and the workaholic culture of “996” (working from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. for six days a week) are major causes of negative emotions for millennials, according to the report.

An early-life crisis?

A midlife crisis is most often associated with 40-something individuals dealing with issues about their identity and self-confidence, not 30- or 20-somethings who should be in the prime of their lives.

Chinese millennials have an abundance of career and life opportunities, but they grew up as only children, and have such high expectations for life, work and love that they take great pains to find meaning in life, says Hongjie Lin, a Shanghai-based professional psychological counselor.

Xinhuanet, the digital news platform of China’s official Xinhua News Agency, hosted an online survey in late April, posing this question: “Is the post-90s generation really suffering from a ‘midlife crisis’?

Close to 60 percent of the respondents admitted to having symptoms associated with midlife crisis, like feelings of unhappiness and worry. Respondents in their mid-20s complained about low income and work stress. But for many Chinese millennials, the quarter-life crisis is more about the emotional upheaval of growing up.

“It is time to be independent, but I feel insecure to be self-reliant. Everything in my life has been arranged by my parents. I feel so useless,” says one netizen who is graduating from college this year.

“I am stressful and feel lost because I don’t know where my life will head towards in the future: should I pursue a PhD after my masters program? Should I move to another city?" another participant laments. "My crisis is that I am not good enough. I’ve heard about so many successful stories, but I feel that I’m good at nothing in life.”

“You may say that the post-80s and post-90s generations are experiencing an early ‘midlife crisis,’ or rather, a psychological turmoil through the country’s socialization," Dr. Xiong Yang, director of the Institute of Sociology at Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, told the local media. "They are tired and confused, as people at midlife would go through,” he said.

According to the report by UC Headlines, some of the most popular sang culture quotes are: “It doesn’t matter if I’m not happy today, because I won’t be any better tomorrow,” and, “Sometimes if you don’t make an effort then you won’t know what despair means.”

Afflicted by professional burnout and crises of identity and belief, Chinese millennials need to vent. That’s why they are drawn to the sang culture—engaging in self-directed humor to reduce stress and defy the traditional notions of success: holding a high-paying job, owning a house and getting married. 

Life Lessons, Anxiety

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