Meet the typical Chinese millennial, who makes $22,000 a year but has no student debt, grew up in an economic boom, and has learned how to outhustle everyone else

·19 min read
chinese nanjing street
Chinese millennials face similar challenges as American millennials, including rising debt and staggeringly high home prices. Dan Porges/Getty Images
  • There are 400 million millennials in China, five times the number in the US.

  • A quarter of them have degrees, but they rarely have student debt because going to college is cheap.

  • They were the first generation in the country to enjoy true financial freedom.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

Chen Hai Ying, 39, lives in a six-story, 10,000-square-foot house in Guangzhou. Life is good for the designer, who runs a 3D printing business and earns $15,000 a month. But getting here hasn't been easy.

Chen Hai Ying
After leaving home at 18, juggling jobs, and working part time to get through community college, Chen is now the spitting image of the Chinese dream. Chen Hai Ying

Chen Hai Ying has been a waiter, a handyman, a barista, and a mechanic. He's the definition of the Chinese dream, having paid his way through community college after his family's savings were wiped out in the 1998 Asian financial crisis.

All he wants now is to live a quiet life with his wife and his 8-year-old daughter.

Meanwhile, 900 miles away in Shanghai lives Cassi Xia. She loves a good night out, but her $3,000 monthly salary — which nets her about $2,000 a month after paying rent — limits her to online shopping sprees. Her mother would love for her to settle down within the next two years — she just turned 26 and is one year away from being called a "leftover woman" — but she's resisted those overtures for years.

China has a population of 1.3 billion people in its 22 provinces. At least 400 million of them are millennials. For comparison, the US is home to 72 million millennials.

Insider spoke with six millennials in China, as well as financial and generational experts, to better understand the generation. Importantly, the Chinese millennial is not part of a monolith, and our findings speak to the typical millennial in China, not every millennial.

China's millennials are the country's first privileged generation.

chinese manager sticking post-it notes
China’s millennials were brought up by a generation known for its intense grit, but they entered the workforce at a time when the country was blossoming. Zhihao/Getty Images

China's millennials were among the first to taste the fruit of China's booming economy.

Millennials were born from 1981 to 1996, which makes the oldest millennials 40 this year. But while millennials in the US are known for enduring financial crises, their counterparts in China grew up during a period of economic reform.

Their parents belong to a generation renowned for its ability to "eat bitter" or endure hardship, people who lived through uncertain times such as the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Millennials, on the other hand, started working while China's gross-domestic-product per capita soared more than tenfold.

"Our parents could only worry about putting food on the table — now we can worry about owning assets and houses," said Chen, the entrepreneur. "Our generation can work hard and reap the rewards — our parents had to try and survive."

The pressure to succeed, though, can be soul-crushing. Millennials in China are expected to own an apartment, get a high-paying job, and find a spouse by the time they hit 30. The country's major tech companies celebrate working six days a week, 12 hours a day, as part of a "hustle culture."

Many Chinese millennials are homeowners - and those who aren't have their sights set on becoming homeowners.

Fan Qing
Fan Qing, a 35-year-old social worker, is single and rents an apartment with some friends. One of her conditions for marriage is owning a house with her future husband. Fan Qing

A 2017 HSBC report found that about 70% of Chinese millennials owned a home, compared with 40% of millennials worldwide. And for the Chinese millennials who didn't yet own a home, the report found nine in 10 planned to get one.

Many of them get help from their parents. At least 40% of China's millennial homeowners received money from their families to help pay for their houses, per the HSBC report.

The pressure to grab property in China is high because it practically makes or breaks your chances of getting married. Chinese men are expected to purchase homes before they can tie the knot, said Allison Malmsten, a marketing director at Daxue Consulting.

"Owning a home means a lot to Chinese families, so they are willing to put themselves in deep debt in order to purchase a home," she told Insider. "To make the down payment, a whole family will chip in, oftentimes borrowing money from extended family and friends before going to the bank."

Fan Qing, a single 35-year-old social worker, rents an apartment with several friends in the city of Nanjing. She wants to get married in the future, and for her that will require finding a man who has already purchased a home or has the financial means to buy one.

"In China, when you have kids, you need to register them to a school according to their home address," she told Insider. "If I don't own a home in the city where I work and live, my home address would be all the way back in my hometown in another province."

Chinese millennials have basically no student-loan debt because school is so cheap.

tsinghua university graduation
University courses in China are far cheaper than in the US and can go as low as $550 a semester. Tian Yuhao/China News Service via Getty Images

The typical Chinese millennial doesn't take student loans, even though nearly a quarter of them — 100 million people — have bachelor's degrees.

In fact, student debt is virtually nonexistent in China because college education is so cheap, said Malmsten from Daxue Consulting. University in China typically costs $1,700 to $3,500 a year, according to Times Higher Education. In the US, for comparison, students spend $12,900 a year on average for public-school education and $49,800 a year on average at private universities.

Most Chinese millennials also get their education paid for by their parents.

Fan's parents were farmers in a rural part of Fujian, a province in southern China. But they saved enough money to pay for her college education, which cost about $550 a semester.

"Most people I know don't go to university because they didn't study hard enough, not because they couldn't afford it," she told Insider.

And many Chinese millennials turned to international institutions to further their education. About 544,000 Chinese students studied abroad in 2016, more than triple the 179,800 who did so in 2008. The top destinations include the US, the UK, and Australia.

But millennials like Fan feel that students who travel abroad are either top-scoring students or the children of wealthy parents — what Chinese people call "fu er dai," or the rich second generation.

With so many fresh graduates flooding the market, the job market doesn't look all that rosy for the typical Chinese millennial.

Zhang Xun
Zhang Xun, 33, left his job as an HR executive to start a machinery-testing company. The pay isn't far off from the average salary in China, but he says he's happy. Zhang Xun

The job market in China is inundated by the high volume of graduates every year, making it difficult for millennials to find jobs.

China's total unemployment rate fell to 5% in May, but reports say that while there is an abundance of manufacturing jobs in China, there aren't always enough high-level jobs.

For example, this year, nearly a third of the workers at a tobacco manufacturing plant were graduates from some of China's top-ranking universities, the South China Morning Post reported.

"The pressure on us is very great," said Zhang Xun, a 33-year-old who lives in the city of Qingdao. "Most people in my parents' generation went to high school. Now everyone is going to a university. China has so many people, and so many people are fighting for good jobs."

Zhang is one of those who tried to escape the rat race by starting his own business. He left his job as a human-resources executive and cofounded a machinery-testing company with his university professor in 2017. His new job pays him about $1,500 a month.

"It's much more relaxed — I get to spend more time with my wife and children," he told Insider.

When it comes to finances, the typical millennial in China is making about $22,000 a year. That's on par with their debt levels: The typical Chinese millennial has about $20,000 in debt.

chinese people on escalators
Millennials prefer to keep their money close to their chest, but will break the bank for big-ticket items like homes and cars. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

The average salary of a millennial in China is about $1,817 a month, or $21,804 annually, according to a KPMG report. This means millennials earn about $1,200 less a year than their older counterparts, per the report.

Millennials in China are savers: Even those who make less than average tend to save more than half of each paycheck. A 2020 survey by Danke found that Chinese millennials spend where needed and save where possible.

Hai Rong, a 30-year-old accountant, is able to save 70% of her $1,500 monthly salary because her husband, who works in another city, sends about $1,200 a month to support her and her 2-year-old son in the city of Guangdong. She spends most of her money on food and daily living expenses.

Like many millennials in China, the couple is in debt, paying off a housing loan of about $46,000 for their 1,200-square-foot apartment. Chinese millennials, on average, owe more than $20,000 to lending and credit-issuing institutions, according to Tencent News.

Most of this debt comes from loans taken to purchase big-ticket items like homes or cars, said Malmsten, the marketing director from Daxue Consulting. A basic apartment in major "tier 1" cities like Beijing can cost as much as $1 million.

For Zhang, being the sole breadwinner for his family of four while paying off a housing loan means he can barely afford to save.

"There are definitely times when I am worried about the future. It's not that I don't want to save, it's that I can't," he said.

For many, the image of success is tied to material goods like cars and homes.

beijing apartments
Chinese millennials looking to make their mark in life still peg their success to core pillars of success - earning enough to put down a deposit on a house and a car, and getting married to a desirable partner from a good family. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

For the typical Chinese millennial, the definition of success is best summed up in one word: . Pronounced "zhuan," this was a term coined in 2012 to refer to three essential pillars of success — at least for the Chinese man — house (房子), car (车子), and wife (妻子).

"The concept of having a family, house, and car in order to be viewed as successful might seem archaic, but it's still what my friends and I worry about," Gu Guoli, 34, told Insider.

Gu, who works in a tech startup, told Insider it was "not easy" to check off the items on the list. He said it took him almost 15 years to save for a deposit on his home in Beijing.

"I have a wife, and a house, but not a car. Even though we live close enough to the middle of Beijing city and don't necessarily need a vehicle, to some extent, there's still a worry that we haven't quite achieved our full potential," Gu said.

Online shopping has become something of a national pastime among millennials in China: 77% of respondents in a 2017 survey said shopping on Taobao was their favorite leisure activity.

shanghai taxx
It's fun to live in a big city in China. But fun often comes with a big price tag. If you're a cash-strapped millennial, nights out might put a strain on your pocketbook. Shanghai TAXX/Weibo

The typical Chinese millennial is well-connected: It's estimated that more than 90% of millennials in China own a smartphone. And life behind the Great Firewall is far from uninteresting.

Chinese tech giants like Tencent, Alibaba Group, JD, Baidu, and Meituan have generated an online ecosystem of their own, completely separate from the Western world. You can share the highlights of your life in WeChat Moments (their version of Facebook) and surf Weibo (China's version of Twitter). The social-media app TikTok (called Douyin there) has about 600 million monthly active users in China. One of its rivals, the video app Kuaishou, reached 1 billion monthly active users in June.

Shopping on Taobao has practically become a national pastime in China too, with 77% of Chinese respondents in a 2017 KPMG survey picking it as their favorite leisure activity. This is boosted even further by influencers like China's lipstick king, Austin Li, and the rise of fast-beauty brands like Flower Knows and Florasis.

"Many things on Taobao are fairly inexpensive," Xia said. "For $50, you can buy around 10 to 15 fairly well-made items. It's enough for most people to satisfy any retail therapy cravings. And if you're super bored, watching online shopping live streams is a kind of entertainment in itself, too."

Millennials in China love their luxury brands and are expected to account for a significant portion of the global luxury market by 2024.

chanel china
Luxury brands enjoy massive sales in China among the younger crowd. Not all Chinese millennials go gaga for expensive products, though. Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

A report released by Boston Consulting Group and Tencent in September 2018 observed that Chinese customers would by 2024 account for 40% of the global luxury goods sold worldwide and a good portion of them (58%) would be millennials.

Chinese millennials' love for shopping follows in the country's broader tradition. During this year's "618" shopping season (which is known as China's Black Friday) one shopping platform, JD.com, hauled in over $53.2 billion in sales, with luxury brands like Ferragamo, Tod's, and Bally coming out on top.

Daxue Consulting said millennial moms were among its core consumer group, picking up items for new parents.

Chinese millennials speaking with Insider, however, said they rarely spent money on luxury goods, saying the practice was common only among the wealthy.

Chen, the 3D printing company owner and entrepreneur, said he bought his wife an expensive coat for their wedding and sometimes gifted her branded bags, but said these splurges are the exception.

Hai, the accountant, said she rarely bought luxury goods but values them tremendously.

"I grew up poor," she continued. "My father worked as a miner and my family was always struggling for money. I learned to save money because of that, but I also wish I could spend money on things like Louis Vuitton bags. It would be a sign that my life is better now."

And then there's the matter of marriage. The typical Chinese millennial is either putting off marriage until their late 20s or not getting married at all.

chinese couple weddings
The typical Chinese millennial is getting married much later than their parents did. This, despite the stigma being attached to young women over the age of 27, who are called "sheng nv," or "leftover women." Zhang Jie/Hua Shang Daily/VCG via Getty Images

The typical Chinese millennial might be on dating sites like TanTan (the country's version of Tinder), but they're most likely getting married at a later age than their parents did.

The average marriage age of a Shanghai resident has been inching up since 2010. In 2019, the average age of marriage was 30 for men and 28 for women. Notably, there's a stigma attached to women over 27 who haven't already gotten engaged or married, and who are tagged with the derogatory label of "sheng nv," or "leftover woman."

Nationwide figures also show millennial women are putting off marriage until at least their mid-20s. In 2016, the average age at first marriage for a Chinese woman was 25. For men, it was 27.

This is in stark contrast to their parent's generation. In 1982, the nation's population census showed half of China's women were married before they hit 22. The men were younger, too: The average Chinese man married at 23.

The Chinese government is worried that some Chinese millennials aren't getting married at all. From 2013 to 2019, the number of Chinese people who got married plummeted 41%, to just 13.9 million from 23.8 million, per data from the Chinese National Bureau of Statistics.

Experts say the typical Chinese millennial woman is choosing pets over strollers, and freedom over family.

china family
China’s birth rate hit an all-time low in 2020, prompting the government to raise its quota from two children to three. Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

In 2020, China hit two demographic landmarks in one year, said May Yee Chen, an expert at the marketing research firm Wunderman Thompson: a historically low birth rate and the lowest marriage rate in two decades.

"This is part of a longer-term trend where more and more women are financially independent and their changing life expectations have made the tradition of marriage less appealing," Chen said. "It's not that Chinese millennials don't want to get married — it's that their bar is higher."

Chen added that women in particular had become less willing to settle.

"In consumer trends, you see this in things like the rise of the pet economy, where singles spend on pets what they are not spending on children; the increase in solo women travelers; and of course, the growth in Alibaba's annual Singles Day Shopping Festival, now the world's biggest annual shopping spree," Chen said.

Delaying marriage and childbirth isn't the only way Chinese millennials are reshaping their country. This year, a new trend emerged: Some Chinese millennials are choosing to reject the rat race and "lie flat."

man, city, shanghai
For some Chinese millennials, being under constant pressure to fulfill generational expectations of starting a family and forging ahead in one's career at all costs holds no appeal. They'd rather lie flat. Yongyuan Dai/Getty Images

Speaking with Insider in June, Zhang Zhiyuan, 27, who is unemployed, said he was an ardent follower of the "lying flat movement" (or 躺平主义).

"8 a.m. means it's time to lie down," Zhang told Insider. "Though I don't have a job to go to, so I can lie down anytime. It's great."

Zhang is not the only Chinese millennial who is choosing to lie flat. It is a rebellion against "neijuan," or involution, a term often used to describe the hypercompetitive lifestyle that millennials in China face.

"Neijuan" goes hand in hand with China's "hustle" culture, where people work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. The 9-9-6 lifestyle was strongly championed by Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, who once in 2019 called the 72-hour workweek a "blessing."

"Since I made a permanent move to Shanghai four years ago, I've sent out more than 2,000 job applications and been to hundreds of interviews," Zhang told Insider. "I got a job at an accounting firm after my second year of job hunting, but I resigned after four months. That lifestyle just wasn't for me."

The typical Chinese millennial knows the odds are stacked against those who don't come from money or top colleges, but they're willing to hustle for a better future.

chinese youths
There are only a handful of top colleges in China, called the C9 League. Equivalent to the US Ivy Leagues, going to one of these colleges essentially means one has a leg up in almost all aspects of life. But that doesn’t mean the typical Chinese millennial isn’t willing to hustle to get ahead. Tang Yanjun/China News Service via Getty Images)

Xia, the marketing consultant, told Insider that many Chinese millennials like herself knew they had to work hard if they wanted a better life.

"If you put in your 100%, someone will put in 110%," she said. "So if you want to earn more money, live in a nicer house, and have a good life for yourself and your family, you only have one option: Work hard. The alternative is to be content with being a loser."

Gu, the tech-startup employee, told Insider that Chinese millennials like him weren't out to "change the world" or "be the generation that changes China." Echoing Xia's sentiments, he said that while some people might be content with "lying flat," there's a consensus that endless possibilities exist — if one works hard.

"I think that the next generation after us may have more room to be creative and pursue alternative careers," Gu said. "But even for younger people, the idea of giving up your corporate job to become a musician and earn a quarter of your current salary would be ridiculous to your peers, not to mention incredibly disappointing to your parents."

Compared with American millennials, Chinese millennials earn less - but they might still be better off financially.

chinese nanjing street
Chinese millennials face similar challenges to American millennials, including rising debt and staggeringly high home prices. Dan Porges/Getty Images

Compared with the American millennial, the Chinese millennial might be better off financially. Insider's Hillary Hoffower wrote that the average American millennial was delaying life goals because of student-loan debt. Chinese millennials earn much less than their American counterparts, but they are not saddled with massive student-loan debt.

And while Chinese millennials face familial, societal, and even governmental pressure to get married and have more kids, this doesn't make the generation a regional outlier. South Korea and Japan, too, are reporting dismal birth rates.

But even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and a fraught international landscape for China, Chen Hai Ying, the millennial who launched his own company, believes Chinese millennials can build a life that's better than their parents'.

He thinks his countrymen are "good at quietly enduring adversity to find a breakthrough in solving difficulties."

"Most Chinese millennials have high academic qualifications or personal skills," Chen said. "And as long as they are guided by wise mentors, I think Chinese millennials will be better than their predecessors."

Read the original article on Insider