American millennials may resent their baby boomer elders for ruining the world, but generational politics in mainland China and Hong Kong are more complicated.
While college kids are out on the streets of Hong Kong demanding freedom and winning local council elections, many of their parents are home counseling caution. Millennials want positive change, and they want it now. Their baby boomer parents also want a better future for their children, but they are worried about the economic impact of the protests and the risk of a possible military crackdown. This may turn out to be Hong Kong’s “OK, boomer” moment.
Born in the United States, the “OK, boomer” meme has spread around the world, to the New Zealand Parliament, and back again. It is a dismissive jab by millennials—born 1981-1996—at their baby boomer parents—born 1946-1964. Its implication is that boomers have ruined the world and have no right to talk down (boomsplain?) to their millennial children, who have big, ambitious, and idealistic plans to make things right again.
Whatever the validity of the accusation, the demographic categories behind it don’t necessarily travel overseas. Baby boomers are called baby boomers because the U.S. birthrate boomed 30 percent in the years after World War II. There were two reasons: First, many couples who were prevented from conceiving during the war suddenly had the opportunity when the troops came home, and second, postwar prosperity sparked a culture change that brought the median age at first marriage down by more than a year.
That was the American pattern, and other Western developed countries experienced similar trends. So did the Soviet Union. But some Asian developing countries had later baby booms, while many countries had none at all. In most of the poorest countries of the world, fertility rates simply continued their long, slow declines from the very high levels of the colonial era. Indeed, every country has a different demographic profile, although that doesn’t seem to change the fact that intergenerational conflict is as close to a universal phenomenon as human society gets.
Hong Kong did have a small postwar baby boom, but it came a bit later than the American one. The years immediately following the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1950, were tough times in the territory, which saw its population swell with people displaced by the war and with refugees from the Communist takeover. To the extent that Hong Kong had a baby boom at all, it was during the years 1955-1968. So although America’s boomers started to turn 65 in 2011, Hong Kong’s will only start turning 65 next year.
Other Northeast Asian countries also had late baby booms. Like Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan faced difficulty immediately after the war, followed by modest baby booms in the 1950s. Northeast Asia’s latest baby boom happened in Japan. If you think Japan has an aging crisis now, just wait until its boomers start turning 65 in 2032 and bow out of the workforce.
The Timing of Northeast Asia’s Baby Booms
|Country||Baby-boom years||Years when boomers will turn 65||Further life expectancy at age 65|
|United States||1946-1964||2011-2029||18-20 years|
|Hong Kong||1955-1968||2020-2033||21-23 years|
|South Korea||1955-1963||2020-2028||18-23 years|
Source: Author calculations based on data from the U.N. Population Division World Population Prospects and the U.S. Census Bureau International Data Base
But the biggest baby boom of all happened in mainland China—and it had nothing to do with war. China’s baby boom was a response to the Great Famine of 1959-1961, and it lasted until the tightening of fertility controls in the mid-1970s, when China started down the road toward the one-child policy. In many ways, China’s post-famine baby boom might be seen as the “great replacement” of children who died or were never born because of the hardships of the famine years, during which the birthrate plunged by 50 percent and the death rate roughly doubled.
China’s post-famine baby boom was so big that, today, the number of people aged 50 is double the number who are 10 years older—and 40 percent greater than the number of those 10 years younger. Currently aged 43-57, China’s boomers are a huge generation of 343 million people. In fact, people born in the years between 1962 and 1976 make up very nearly one-quarter of China’s entire population.
These boomers were 13 to 27 years old in 1989. They’re the ones who filled Tiananmen Square to demand freedom and democracy and who faced the consequences of Deng Xiaoping’s repression. Most of them are now middle-aged careerists saving for retirement. Like America’s baby boomers before them, China’s baby boomers are a large, relatively privileged generation that traded youthful ideals for adult materialism—and that is now viewed by many Chinese millennials as an obstacle to positive social change. Mainland Chinese boomers are not so different from their Hong Kong counterparts; in fact, many of Hong Kong’s boomers are themselves immigrants from mainland China. As many as 1.5 million mainlanders have taken up residency in Hong Kong since 1997.
If “Hao, boomer” ever makes it to the Chinese cultural area, it will have a strikingly familiar ring. Hao is the Chinese equivalent of “OK”; it’s the second half of the ubiquitous Chinese greeting ni hao, which literally means “you OK.” And most of China’s baby boomers are very OK. The more educated ones may have suffered severe police state repression in their university days, but they now have matured into the richest generation in Chinese history. The kids who filled Tiananmen Square in 1989 are now filling the ranks of middle managers. They’re the ones who own multiple apartments while their children can barely afford to rent.
China’s boomers are not as old as America’s, and they’re not yet in charge of their country. The last four U.S. presidents have all been baby boomers, but China is still ruled by its smaller postwar generation, who are roughly same age as America’s boomers: Chinese President Xi Jinping is 66 years old; his premier, Li Keqiang, is 64. As it clings to power, China’s postwar generation has, in effect, tried to buy off its boomers through economic opportunity while keeping down its millennials through state control of the media, internet, and education. In exchange, China’s aging leaders have gotten the stable society they yearned for during the upheavals of Mao Zedong’s time in power.
But eventually the postwar generation will pass from the scene, and the boomers will take over. China’s leadership won’t skip a generation, as the United States is likely to skip Generation X, because in China the children of the 1960s and ’70s are plentiful and powerful, not scarce and indebted as in the United States. Thus, while American millennials fully expect to be in charge in the not-too-distant future, China’s young will be waiting for decades. Their retreat into social media and video games may be fully justified.
This is not to say that China’s millennials are all passive, complacent consumerists. They may not be marching in the streets like their Hong Kong cousins, but they are pushing for meaningful social change in areas like gender equality and LGBT rights. Obviously, in the Chinese context, these movements must operate much more quietly than they would in Hong Kong or the West. But they exist, and they are likely to change attitudes—if not immediately and in public, then at least behind the scenes for future generations in power.
That brighter tomorrow may come eventually, but it won’t come fast enough for Hong Kong’s millennial street protesters. Reform candidates swept this weekend’s local council elections, but that is little more than a symbolic victory for democracy. The real decisions continue to be made in the thoroughly pro-regime Legislative Council—and in Beijing. With China’s People’s Liberation Army and People’s Armed Police barracking some 12,000 troops in Hong Kong (and, at times, thousands more just across the border in Guangdong), the democratic reformers have little room for maneuver.
Mainland millennials might be sympathetic to Hong Kong’s demands for reform or at least be indifferent. But China’s baby boomers, having lost their own bid to reform the country 30 years ago, are unlikely to offer concessions to Hong Kong—even if they could, since they aren’t in power. When Hong Kong’s millennials think “Hao, boomer,” it might be directed at their parents’ generation, but their parents understand who is really in charge. Hong Kong isn’t ruled by Carrie Lam and her baby boomer colleagues. It is ruled from Beijing, where older preferences prevail.