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Youth Dream Survey

M-shaped Dreams: Does Social Status Determine Opportunity?


What do Taiwan’s two million students think about themselves, society and the educational system? What is the difference between their reality and the perceptions of their parents and society?



M-shaped Dreams: Does Social Status Determine Opportunity?

By Kuei-Ying Hsu and Sherry Lee
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 384 )

What are the spiritual values of Taiwan’s youth? Are they tough and resolute as oak trees or as easily bruised as bananas? Of Taiwan’s 3.3 million young people, two million are currently enrolled in high school or college. How do these young students view themselves? What are their hopes and aspirations?

During the month of October, CommonWealth Magazine conducted two surveys, the “Student Dream Survey” and the “Opinion Poll of Parents of Students,” to better comprehend the dreams the current generation of young students hold and the challenges they face. Based on this data, we also performed cross-generational values analysis.

Yearning for Independence , Ambitions Outstrip Capabilities

Taiwan 's current generation of 15-24-year-olds has been widely perceived as the self-confident, libertine and opinionated “Generation Me.”

But has the freedom of Generation Me been accompanied by a sense of responsibility, and has it brought with it the risk of an increasing reluctance to grow up?

The Youth Dream Survey found that where “independence” is defined as “responsibility for one's actions without reliance on others,” only 36 percent of respondents described themselves as independent, while 64 percent felt they were not independent.

Fully 85 percent of young respondents felt young people should be independent by the time they are 24 years-old, with 53 percent feeling independence should ideally come between 20 and 24 years of age and 32 percent even maintaining independence should come by age 19 or before.

But when asked when they themselves would be completely independent, only 65 percent felt it would happen before age 24. The 20-point gap between the stated ideal and personal acknowledgement indicates that this generation of students clearly recognizes the importance and necessity of personal independence as early as possible, but that they also keep a practical attitude, realizing that current domestic and international circumstance as well as their own capabilities may prevent them from being entirely independent before age 24.

Like their counterparts around the world, young people in Taiwan are experiencing “delayed adulthood,” a phenomenon that is exacerbated by Asian culture.

Clinging Parents, Lack of Drive

What are the factors driving the fear of independence or the insufficient independence among this group of young people?

Upon reflection, 67 percent of young people feel they “lack sufficient self-motivation,” while 23 percent say their “parents are overly strict and unwilling to let go.” This echoes a prior analysis that for the most part students are unwilling to make demands upon themselves and thus end up relying on the family and avoiding self-autonomy.

The parental survey cited the same two major factors that the kids did for the lack of independence among young people, except the ratios were reversed: 40 percent of parents cited “overly strict parents who are unwilling to let go” while 22 percent said their kids “lack sufficient self-motivation.”

The result indicates a high degree of introspection among the parents of today's youth and a belief that their own overly protective parenting and unwillingness to let go is to blame for the lack of independence among Taiwan 's youth.

Actually, the majority of the parents in the survey were born between 1951 and 1961 and thus lived through the time of Taiwan 's economic takeoff, where annual per capita income doubled from US$5,000 to US$ 10,000 in the space of a decade, likewise experiencing the baptism of democratic thought during the pre- and post-martial law periods. They have accumulated considerable wealth and embraced individualistic thought in their education, rejecting authoritarianism. Consequently, once this generation had children of their own they transformed the previous methods of education.

This generation of young parents rejects the previous norm of authoritarianism in raising their children.

When queried regarding the care and supervision of the children and the state of communication within the family, 72 percent of parents surveyed believed they employed a “democratic, communicative” philosophy in raising their children, with 10 percent maintaining a “warm, protective” approach, nearly 10 percent a “free, lenient” style and just five percent answering that they ran an “authoritarian, highly pressured” household. The answers indicated that the current generation of parents has evolved with the times in terms of caring for their children.

Naturally, there exists a considerable gap in perceptions between the generations.

Just 56 percent of young people felt they lived in a “democratic, communicative” household. This shows that many parents believing they run a “democratic, communicative” household are in the eyes of their children in charge of a “warm, protective” (23 percent) or “free, lenient” household.

This discrepancy in percentages is similarly reflective of whether a serious “generation gap” exists within the household: less than a tenth of parents surveyed felt the presence of a serious generation gap in their home, while nearly 30 percent of youths surveyed thought otherwise.

Both the parents and young people surveyed agreed that the primary reason behind the generation gap was a tendency among parents to exaggerate the accumulated wisdom of their years and force their way of thinking onto their children.

Interestingly, however, many parents surveyed believed the secondary reason was that “kids keep their feelings to themselves and among their peer group and are uninterested in interacting with their parents” (24 percent), while many young people surveyed felt the secondary reason was “too little time spent together [resulting in] a lack of mutual learning and communication” (33 percent). Another secondary reason cited by a considerable number of young people surveyed was “parents lack the ability and interest to learn about new things” (20 percent). It is clear that the young people surveyed care deeply about whether their parents can learn and grow together with them and whether they share mutual topics of conversation.

Everybody has dreams, and ordinarily education is the means by which people realize their dreams. Are Taiwan 's schools capable of developing students' particular talents to their fullest potential? Do they help young people realize their dreams?

Does the current educational system allow students to appropriately develop? Although 60 percent of students and nearly 50 percent of parents surveyed answered, “Yes,” nearly 40 percent of students and 45 percent of parents surveyed answered, “No.”

Among students answering “No,” 61 percent (74 percent of high school students, 51 percent of university students) said: “Schools are overly diploma-driven, overly emphasizing test scores and advancement.”

Although appropriate development of well-rounded individuals has been gaining increasing emphasis during the past 11 years of education reform, Taiwan 's high schools continue with an inclination toward serious overemphasis on test scores and grade advancement.

According to Chung Cheng High School principal Liu Cheng-ming, students are currently offered a wide variety of educational choices, but the overriding concern among kids remains whether or not they will be able to gain admission to a top school of their choosing.

“I'm afraid our whole value system has not made the appropriate adjustments in keeping with a diverse society,” Liu says.

Aside from the overemphasis on diplomas, another 15 percent of students surveyed cited “education is too inflexible and focused on rote memorization” as another reason for their lack of interest and inability to adequately develop.

Wanted: International Vision

What is the school system most deficient in teaching? Among young people surveyed, 36 percent believed the biggest defect was in “international vision and capability,” while another nearly 20 percent cited cultivating “independent thinking” as the biggest shortcoming.

The current generation is a highly mobile one. More than 65 percent of students surveyed hoped that they could elect to work somewhere other than Taiwan in the future, among whom 30 percent said they would work in “any country or place.” It is apparent that developing on the international stage is the goal of the next generation and they believe that the education system's ability to equip them with an international outlook is critical.

Many parents surveyed felt high schools and universities were most deficient in cultivating “ character and integrity ,” at 33 percent, followed also by international capability, and ability to think independently.

While 63 percent of students surveyed said the education they were currently receiving was allowing them to adequately develop and would help them to realize their dreams, the survey also showed that 37 percent believed the current educational system was of no help at all in the realization of their dreams!

As for uplifting each student and keeping students from losing their joy of learning and their educational opportunities through the pressures of the grade advancement system, the topic of “equality” should be the focal point for the next stage of Taiwan 's educational reforms.

'M-shaped Society' Gives Rise to 'M-shaped Dreams'

The realization of one's dreams rests upon whether each person has sufficient educational opportunity. But the survey indicated that with the deepening wealth gap, the aspirations of and opportunities for young people have grown progressively “M shaped.”

So what are young peoples' perceptions toward society?

Fully 88 percent of students surveyed said they felt society was “unfair,” with 22 percent of those characterizing society as “extremely unfair!”

Young people felt the primary reason for the unfairness in Taiwanese society was “manipulation of the law by those with power” (36 percent) and “the rich have access to greater resources” (34 percent).

In the past, the educational system was able to assist disadvantaged families, but with the commodification of education, social class is increasingly the determining factor in future educational opportunity for a given individual. This is also one of the greatest headaches for Taiwanese society.

In cross analysis of the survey results, CommonWealth Magazine also discovered a significant discrepancy among social classes in one regard: A full 100 percent of those members of the upper class surveyed said they have considered sending their children abroad to study, while 63.2 percent of the middle class and just 34.5 percent of the lower class have considered doing so.

Faced with possible unfairness in society, how many students still believe they can seize control of their own destiny to achieve a successful life?

Around 90 percent of students answered that they could (among whom, 20 percent “absolutely” believed it was possible).

However, the proportion of students from the upper tier of society who believed they determined their own destiny was significantly higher than those from the middle and lower rungs. Among students from the upper tier of society, 53 percent “absolutely” believed they could control their own destiny, while less than 20 percent of those in the middle and lower rungs chose the same answer.

What are the biggest worries for the future of this current generation of young people?

“Unable to find a good job” was the greatest general worry among 67 percent of students, while 52 percent of their parents agreed. It is plain to see that this is the core issue when it comes to making a living and self-development.

Salary Expectations Not High

Expectations among students surveyed as regards their salary for their first real job are more realistic than one might imagine. The biggest percentage believed it would be in the NT$20,000-NT$30,000 range (44 percent), followed by the NT$30,000-NT$40,000 range (23 percent), NT$40,000-NT$50,000 (11 percent) and more than NT$50,000 (10 percent).

Most parents believed their child's first paycheck would be either in the NT$20,000-NT$30,000 range (48 percent) or NT$20,000 or below (17 percent), but 23 percent answered “don't know.” Compared with the expectations of young people, parents were more reserved.

In the area of salary expectations, a class discrepancy again appeared. The social position occupied by the respondent was clearly related to salary expectations for first jobs.

Among students in the upper tier of society, 43.3 percent believed the salary for their first job would be more than NT$50,000, but only 9.5 percent of those in the middle tier believed they could get paid more than NT$50,000 for their first job.

Aside from work anxieties, 55 percent of young people also worried about being “unable to find a direction in life.”

In the course of her work counseling students, Fu Jen University psychology department lecturer Tseng Bao-ying has found that this generation of young people finds it easy to “live inside a dream.”

“During the educational process the parents keep telling the next generation how unique they are. But when the time comes to really enter society, they find it fraught with difficulty, so they prefer to keep themselves in a safe place to avoid such troubles,” Tseng says.

The emotional state of young people and their feelings of self-confidence and self-doubt can also be observed in the survey.

Little Depression, Considerable Isolation

Asked whether they liked themselves, 81 percent of young people said they did, while 19 percent answered they did not like themselves.

However, employing an index of depression used by psychological profilers, the current generation of young people rates as slightly depressed, but not overly so.

Among student respondents, less than 10 percent said they often felt sad and hopeless.

Lu Luo, a professor in National Taiwan University 's Department of Industrial Management and an expert in psychology, notes that in most surveys of common medical conditions, the proportion of people suffering some form of mental disorder averages between 10 and 15 percent of the general population.

“The survey results indicate that our young people remain able to emotionally deal with their level of depression,” Lu says.

Although 55 percent of students responding said they occasionally feel sad, Lu believes everybody deals with temporary emotional distress from time to time, and that it is completely normal.

The survey also shows a general sense of alienation among this generation.

Among students surveyed, 17 percent said they “frequently” felt misunderstood or lonely, while 65 percent answered they “occasionally” have such feelings. Fully 82 percent said they felt some form of isolation.

From the perspective of developmental psychology, young people are caught amidst biological and emotional changes, and they employ a great deal of abstract thought to explore life, with their viewpoints in a constant state of flux. Once their line of thinking digresses from that of their teachers or elders, they lose a sense of acceptance and can easily begin to feel lonely.

What is the thing in life of greatest value for young people? Nearly 70 percent of respondents answered “family relationships,” followed by “health” at 63 percent, while 46 percent answered “friendships” and 28 percent responded with “love.” Parents ranked the most important things in life in the following order: health, family relationships, morality and wealth.

Disintegration of Marriage a Myth

Today's young people do not eschew marriage or procreation, as Taiwanese society at large often frets. According to the survey, 62 percent of respondents believe they will “get married and have children” when they reach adulthood, 16 percent intend to “get married but have no children,” and 22 percent do not want to get married (among whom, 11.6 percent want to remain single for life).

Adolescence is a time for embracing dreams. Taiwanese youth are not devoid of dreams, but they certainly have their worries over future employment and direction in life.

This survey provides various institutions assisting Taiwan 's youth with reference coordinates for charting the minds of young people, including: the educational system's lack of international outlook, parents' unwillingness to let go, society's inability to provide sufficient and fair opportunities, and the demands young people place upon themselves. These are the key determinants of whether they will be able to fulfill their dreams.

Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy

Note: The survey of students was conducted with printed questionnaires, which did not include the choice “Do not know.” However, the survey of parents was conducted by telephone, and if any survey respondent replied to a question with