My generation of urban Chinese, born in the 1980s and 1990s under the one-child policy, were long labeled “little emperors,” a term used to characterize us as narcissistic and weak-willed children spoiled by parental attention and newfound material comfort. It was an image that we rejected: In reality, as I used to joke with friends, our lives of academic grind and adolescent boredom felt closer to that of an overworked county clerk than a privileged little brat. Gradually, as single-child families became the norm, the term fell out of use.
But as young people are venturing into the real world and confronting economic and social challenges with a complexity unknown to our parents, many of us are starting to wonder whether the “little emperor” label had been more accurate than we thought.
Many of my peers, finding themselves overwhelmed by the trials of adulthood, have begun to reflect critically on how middle-class kids are raised in urban China. Perhaps what were considered markers of my generation’s privilege — intensive parenting, rigorous education and consumerist culture — are in fact our bane, making us self-centered and emotionally isolated, struggling to find independence and fulfillment in a fast-changing society.
The evidence is hard to miss: the Chinese student overseas who calls home every day sobbing; the fashionable young woman who screams at a mortified boyfriend in public; the top-performing university student who stops going to class and loses himself in video games. In the latest dating show taking television by storm, contestants appear onstage flanked by their parents, who grill suitors before their children are allowed to meet them.
Chinese people have “giant infant” syndrome, says Wu Zhihong, a psychiatrist and author of a best-selling book called “A Country of Giant Infants” who lists symptoms that call to mind a grown-up “little emperor.” In Mr. Wu’s view, social problems from littering in public places to codependency in romantic relationships have their roots in China’s family-centered culture and its new levels of oppression that stunt individual psychological growth.
His analysis struck a chord with Chinese millennials. Their enthusiastic responses alarmed state censors and got the book banned early this year, apparently for its damning portrayal of what it calls the Chinese “national character.”
Mr. Wu’s attack on the family resonated for good reasons. Despite having been the bedrock of Chinese culture for millenniums, family values have changed in the past 30 years, as the country has become wealthier and more capitalist. The focus is now less on the young’s respect for their elders than on parents’ unrelenting devotion to their offspring. Urban Chinese parents are involved in their children’s lives in ways that would make “tiger mothers” from earlier times gasp.
Mothers and fathers have expanded their influence on their children’s lives beyond school, into career, marriage, housing purchase and child-rearing. It is driven in part by necessity: the rollback of the socialist welfare system and the shortage of sought-after social benefits, like good schools, obliged families to pool their resources to help the young. But this ethos deprives children of the chance to develop social skills and the sense of self-sufficiency associated with adulthood.
A 2013 study by Australian scholars showed that compared with older cohorts with siblings, members of China’s one-child generation are more prone to traits like risk aversion and pessimism. These are reflected, for instance, in their preference for stable jobs and their difficulty in adjusting to work environments. According to recent career surveys, college graduates have consistently ranked government jobs as their top choice, yet they frequently complain of the stress and boredom, as well as the difficulty of navigating interpersonal relations. One-quarter quit their first job within a year.
“People born in the ’80s and ’90s, having always had their life mapped out by parents, have trouble switching from their child identity into that of a working professional,” wrote Miao Lijuan, a business commentator, in an essay dissecting millennials’ work experience in a journal on corporate culture. “They had to go through psychological weaning after starting work.”
If helicopter parenting hinders the socialization of the young, the effect is compounded by its narrow focus. While Chinese middle-class parents tirelessly push their children to work hard and master society’s hidden rules, they pay far less attention to emotional qualities like empathy. The education system, which pits students against one another in ruthless competition for spots at elite universities, does little to ease the problem.
A high school friend once told me a story from her senior year. She had received an admission offer from Harvard, which she planned to attend. She was also given a place at the prestigious Peking University. When she was about to inform the Chinese university about her decision to give up her place, a high school administrator intervened. Letting the university know would mean her place would go to another high school student, maybe one from a rival school, the administrator explained, reasoning that it would be better to let the spot go unfilled than to give a boost to another school’s college admission rate.
It is not hard to understand why Chinese millennials, absorbing such lessons, are often blamed for their lack of concern for others. This puts a strain on intimate relationships, above all marriages.
A Shanghai court discovered after reviewing its divorce cases in 2011 and 2012 that among married couples born after 1980, around 40 percent end up divorcing within three years. Further complicating those marriages is the involvement of the couples’ parents, according to a study by Yunxiang Yan, an anthropology professor at U.C.L.A. Their efforts to defend their child during marital conflicts often end up precipitating the dissolution of the marriage.
Daunted by the dreary prospect of married life and discouraged by the difficulty of forming lasting emotional bonds, some millennials are staying away from marriage. Marriage registrations have declined for two consecutive years since 2014, according to government data.
Brimming youthful energy is mainly channeled into consumerism. Pouring money into everything from online games to cosmetics, millennials account for nearly half of China’s total private consumption, according to a report from the Boston Consulting Group.
Their voracious appetite even spawned an annual ritual. One day every November, the Chinese go on an internet shopping spree to take advantage of steep discounts at e-commerce stores. It’s no coincidence that the date, Nov. 11, or 11/11, was picked for being a batch of lonesome 1s.
Helen Gao is a social policy analyst at a research company and a contributing opinion writer.