The easy life: why some Chinese youths are dialling down the ambition
You may not have heard of the recent phenomenon of ‘Contented Youths’, but perhaps you’ve heard of its close cousin, ‘Buddha Youths’. If you haven’t heard of either, it’s worth paying attention.
Both terms originate from China; ‘Buddha Youth’ first appeared in Chinese social media as a meme a few years ago. The term is used to describe young Chinese people, mostly born post-1990s, who lack financial ambition and instead place more emphasis on achieving a peaceful, non-materialistic way of living.
With a similar outlook to Buddhist monks but still a part of mainstream society, Buddha Youths take peace of mind to the extreme; they choose not to engage with romance and aspire to get the easiest job possible in the hope of living a drama- and disappointment-free life.
Where has this trend come from? Among marketers and the media there are two popular theories: the first is that, as China transforms into a richer society, youths that grew up with sufficient material wealth have started to pursue higher level goals, like spirituality. The second is that, as Chinese cities grow bigger, more indifferent and harder to find success in, young urban migrants find city life harder and lonelier than they anticipated. So, they develop a psychological mechanism to cope. They are essentially choosing to focus on small pleasures like finishing work on time, rather than aspiring to things that they perceive to be out of their reach.
This kind of philosophy isn’t new to China. Taoism, one of China’s famous ancient philosophies, has a central idea of naturalness; this outlines the ‘primordial state of all things’ and “to attain it, one has to identify with the Tao; this involves freeing oneself from selfishness and desire, and appreciating simplicity.”
Many brands are concerned that the Buddha Youth phenomenon could be a threat to business, as more and more Chinese youths appear to stop caring about material possessions. Though some marketers argue Buddha Youths are still interested in brands, even luxury brands, the truth is that they simply don’t prize material objects over everything else. There are indications that Chinese consumers, regardless of age, are heading in this direction anyway.
In fact, there’s another expanding group in China that has received much less attention, but that should also be of interest to brands: ‘Contented Youths’.
Contented Youths are from middle class families in China’s key cities; they’re not particularly rich; they have ordinary jobs, as do their parents. They share many traits with Buddha Youths, like a lack of strong ambition and an easy-going approach to life. But what distinguishes them is a strong sense of contentment. They want nothing more than what they already have, except for perhaps a small promotion, a slightly higher salary, to add a Supreme t-shirt or two to their already-large streetwear collection (or luxury skincare in the case of their female counterparts).
What drives Contented Youths’ lack of ambition and contentment is a two-way trap. On one hand, their families often own a second property, which, even if humble, gives them a sense of security. But on the other hand, as the Chinese economy matures, Contented Youths also feel that social mobility is closing up; they have a feeling that they couldn’t be as wildly successful as their successors, even if they tried.
As a result, Contented Youths are satisfied to be satisfied. They hope things stay as they are forever, as that’s the easiest life they could wish for.
An interesting thing for brands and businesses to note when it comes to Contented Youths is that, far from not wanting to buy or consume stuff, this group is happy to spend money on self-love to live up to their notion of humble privilege. They appreciate mass-market brands; but buying something from a premium brand brings a hit of adrenaline to their daily life.
Ultimately, they view day-to-day contentment, like having a good meal or beating the queue to get a cup of trendy, WeChat-able fruit tea, as the key to general happiness. Their outlook isn’t shallow, it’s focused on gentle accumulation and living with one’s own means (with the occasional flourish).
At the core of the Contented Youth philosophy is being thankful for what you have. The Chinese phrase -- with Japanese origin – that loosely translates as “small but certain happiness” sums this up well.
Contented Youths may not be led by consumption, but they’re not closed off from it.
Jas Tang, Flamingo