The ’35 Generation’
Seeking Freedom, Living for the Moment
They’ve been derided as the “strawberry” generation, but Taiwan’s 30-somethings defy stereotypes. Born into an era when freedom began taking root in the country but economic growth slowed, what motivates them and how do they see their futures?
Seeking Freedom, Living for the MomentBy Lucy Chao
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 632 )
The 1980s were a period of earthshaking change for Taiwan, from the lifting of martial law, sweeping educational reforms and financial crises to the awakening of public consciousness, the buildup of social energy, and the rise of student and social movements.
This unique political and socio-economic context gradually spawned a new core generation of those born between 1978 and 1987, now aged between 30 and 39. It was the first generation in the post-martial law era and the first to be exposed to education reforms and affected by the internet.
Having assumed the mantle of Taiwan’s economic miracle only to be confronted with low growth being the new normal, where does this generation intend to take Taiwan in the future? Having grown up in the first ethnic-Chinese democratic society, how will they communicate with the generations that have come before and after them under the stress of intense global technology competition?
People have tried to define them, branding them with various generational labels, such as Generation-Y, post-1980 generation, “strawberry” generation, “simple happiness” generation, and simply “losers.”
Beyond the stereotypes, however, who exactly are these 30-somethings? CommonWealth Magazine, which has decided to call them the “35 Generation” to avoid a hint of bias, decided to find out by conducting a “35 Generation Online Survey” in July and August. The survey, which received nearly 10,000 valid responses from adults aged 20 to 69, discovered real differences between them and people from previous generations accustomed to a soaring economy but a much less open society.
Up Against a Sluggish Economy
First, people in this demographic were born in an era of rapid economic growth, but entered adulthood at a time when the economy was struggling the most, reflected in their wages.
Among survey respondents aged 30 to 39, the most common salary bracket identified was NT$30,000 to NT$40,000 (27.4 percent), and the most common expectation of future income was that their salary will be no more than 9 percent higher in three years than it is today (30.4 percent). As a result, “good pay and benefits” was the top factor considered (65.3 percent) when choosing a job (Table 6).
Consumer prices today are also nearly twice as high as they were when members of the 35-Generation were born but salaries have seen little appreciable growth and future prospects are bleak. In 2006, real monthly wages (not including irregular income such as bonuses or overtime) for those in the 30-39 bracket averaged NT$37,925 per month, far higher than the NT$34,923 per month the same age group averaged in 2016 (Table 2). The figures highlight the tremendous pressure faced by the 35 Generation, their disposable income as malleable as cotton candy: if you even compress it slightly, very little is left.
What were the respondents of the 35 Generation most willing to spend their money on? The top three answers were buying a house (38.1 percent), daily expenses (37.1 percent), and travel (35.8 percent) (Table 7). The mindset of the previous generation that property brings wealth remains imbued in the minds of the 30-somethings, but wanting to buy a house and being able to afford it can be two very different things. The house price to income ratio, which measures the number of years of annual salary required to buy a house, has soared in Taipei since the global financial crisis nearly a decade ago, rising from 8 in 2008 to 15 in 2017, making home ownership a more distant dream for many than ever before. (Table 3)
Young adults in other Asian countries are facing similar plights. Japanese author Takanori Fujita has classified young Japanese who earn low incomes, work long hours, don’t own a home and can’t afford to get married or have children as the “Poor Generation.” Such expressions as the “Give Up Generation” have emerged in South Korea to describe young adults who have given up dating, getting married, starting a family, buying a home and even maintaining relationships because of low incomes. And in Taiwan, those young adults staring at bleak futures are sometimes described as the “Bomb Generation.”
Under such circumstances, it’s not surprising that unlike the previous generation that pursued growth and enhanced value, the 35 Generation has a “live for the moment” attitude.
“Bank interest rates are lower than inflation, so doesn’t it make more sense to buy things,” says Lin Thung-hong, an associate research fellow in Academia Sinica’s Institute of Sociology. “(Living in the moment) is rational behavior when wages are low because saving doesn’t have any benefits.”
The idea of “simple happiness” or “simple pleasures” is a way for young people to encourage themselves amid their difficult predicament.
Miao Poya, the 30-year-old host of an online live program and member of the Social Democratic Party, describes that plight as the feeling of being boxed in: “Your feet are stuck in quicksand. You won’t immediately sink and immediately die but you can’t escape.” Miao takes issue with the previous generation’s criticism of young people’s pursuit of “simple happiness.”
“If you wanted to make a more insightful criticism, it would be that capitalism and consumerism have been like anesthetics fed to young people. People who use the labor of youth are not qualified to criticize young people for only aspiring to simple pleasures, because it is that motivation that leaves them willing to continue to work hard for you,” she says.
Marriage is also no longer a high priority for many of today’s 30-somethings. The percentage of people in the 30-39 age bracket with a spouse has fallen from 76 percent in 1996 to 62.2 percent in 2006 to 52.1 percent in 2016 (Table 4). Those who do get married are tying the knot and having children later in life than in past generations.
In 2016, the average age of first marriage in Taiwan was the highest ever at 32.4 years old for men and 30 years old for women, and the total fertility rate continued its long-term decline (Table 5).
“What has been pretty important to me since after college was living a happy and interesting life. That doesn’t necessarily include marriage,” says Ning Chen, the 34-year-old co-founder of the Taipei R-Ladies social network. Though she is married and has a child, marriage in her mind was not a requirement for a fulfilling life.
In the CommonWealth survey, 70 percent of the 30-39 year-old respondents agreed with the idea that “if you can’t find a suitable partner, there’s nothing wrong with being single” (Table 9). More than 80 percent agreed that “if there are problems that are hard to resolve between a married couple, getting divorced is the better option” (Table 10). These views of marriage are more liberal than in previous generations, with women revealing a more “progressive consciousness” than men.
“Academia Sinica did an analysis of more than 30 countries, and in all of them men had a far more conservative view of family than women. That’s an extension of patriarchal values – the image of men as the heads of happy families,” Academia Sinica’s Lin says.
“So everywhere in the world women are more liberal and more open-minded on family values or LGBT rights,” he says.
Pursuing Non-material Values
The “35 Generation” has grown up in the 30 years following the end of martial law in 1987 that have seen Taiwan become far more free and democratic and embrace a more “local” consciousness. Compared to previous generations, young adults in Taiwan are now putting more emphasis on the pursuit of meaning and non-material values.
“To us growing up, the biggest impact of the lifting of martial law is probably that it allowed us to get away from having only one political choice and from tests that have only one standard answer,” Miao says.
This generation also experienced major education reforms, including curriculum overhauls and textbook changes, and Miao felt the ideological emancipation brought by the end of martial law and deregulation of education. That, along with the decentralization, hyper-connectivity and information explosion brought by the internet, empowered more people from the younger generation to participate in public issues, put their values into practice and explore themselves.
“Our generation is full of passion for society, like the 2014 Sunflower movement, which I felt was very cool. Now everybody says ‘if I feel something is unreasonable, I’ll speak up about it’; people want to get involved if they sense there is social injustice,” says Asuka Lee, the 33-year-old editorial director of online media Migrants’ Park.
Social Issues Forge Generational Identity
Academia Sinica’s Lin believes that when the 35-Generation were young adults – when their ideological outlooks and values were taking shape – they were profoundly affected by the global financial crisis and the Sunflower movement, memories that will follow them all of their lives.
“The Sunflower Movement actually shaped an entire generation and how they will identify themselves in the future,” Lin says. Other experiences, such as difficult economic conditions and the increase in women’s economic power, have also molded this generation’s values related to family, relationships, and having children.
The survey, for example, revealed a clear gulf between generations on same-sex marriage. Nearly nine in 10 (87.4 percent) of respondents aged 20 to 29 and three out of four (74.7 percent) of respondents aged 30 to 39 agreed with the proposition that “people of the same gender can get married and have spousal rights.” But that support fell to 61 percent among 40-somethings and to 59.2 percent in the 50-59 age bracket (Table 11)
Exploring Oneself a Life-long Pursuit
Major differences also emerged when it came to defining success. The top choice among 20-29 year-old respondents (51.5 percent) was “realizing my ideals;” among 30-39 year olds, it was “having the freedom to organize my own time” (49.9 percent). Compared to the traditional manufacturing sector mindset of Taiwanese society stressing standardization, uniformity, and mass production rigidly guiding people’s lives, today’s young generation clearly puts a higher priority on freedom and ideals (Table 8).
Mr. Chen, a university professor born in the 1960s, is a classic example of the mantra of his era – “come, come, come to National Taiwan University; go, go, go to the United States.” As part of the generation preceding the 35-Generation, his life experience reflects the generational chasm.
“We grew up in a calm era. There was no opportunity for class mobility; only by going overseas did you have the chance to turn your life around. We didn’t have any time to contemplate what we were doing. We simply followed a regular pattern. Every one of us was a happy Sisyphus, working hard toward the goal of pushing a boulder upwards,” Chen says.
Social commentator Chan Wei-hsiung agrees. The 35-Generation was the first generation of the post-Martial Law era, and they faced the biggest question of their lives – “What is the purpose of life and how should I live?”
“This generation came in contact with the internet, and they saw completely different possibilities for the world. It has a much greater desire to find meaning in their lives,” Chan observers.
He believes forces exist in the internet age that are contributing to the tribalization of society. Facebook, for example, brings together a hero and lonely individuals (or followers). Implicit in this is getting each individual to discover their own distinct qualities and explore what exactly is the kind of life they want to live.
“We constantly make adjustments so that we can become mainstays of society and ponder how to give back to or influence the world,” says 33-year-old Taiwanese film director Cheng Wei-hao.
For many, this is the best of times and the worst of times. The 35 Generation may have yet to see a brighter future on the horizon, but these young adults are typical of past generations of Taiwanese – continuing to battle adversity and bravely forging their own path.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier