In past analyses, the “ANBOUND 100+” team has pointed out that the era of the “post-1960s generation” (referring to the generation from 1957 to 1975) who created China’s economic miracle is over, and the new generation has begun to become the dominant force in society. In other words, the intergenerational difference of population is changing the political and social themes in China. This kind of social change caused by the intergenerational change of population is not unique to China and we can observe a clear trajectory of this change around the world. It is certain that the future world will exhibit radically different values and actions from the past, and this is something that all political leaders and policymakers must recognise.
Five of the world’s most powerful countries are now headed by elderly people: The two candidates for the 2020 U.S. election, Joe Biden and Donald Trump (even Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), are both over 70 years old; Angela Merkel, who has been Germany’s chancellor for nearly 15 years, was born in 1954; Vladimir Putin, who is two years older than Angela Merkel, is also nearly 70 years old; Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, is 71 years old; the average age of China’s top leaders is nearly 63 years old. In other words, the leaders of the world’s five most important countries — the U.S., Japan, Russia, Germany, and China — are all in their late seventies. The current world is running according to the ideas and designs of the “post-1960s generation” and earlier generations.
At the same time, the influence and social engagement of the younger generation are on the rise: The average age of the head of the world’s five biggest technology companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Tesla, and Apple Inc.) is just 50 years old, and their combined market capitalization has exceeded $7 trillion, accounting for nearly 25% of the S&P 500’s market capitalization. In politics, the most emblematic example is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 30-year-old congresswoman who unseated then-Representative Joseph Crowley, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, in the 2018 midterm elections, and who has emerged as a left-wing spokesperson with as much influence within American society as Sanders. Even Biden had to seek her support at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Then the Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who is only 17 years old, has become a household name around the world. In 2019, her environmental activism attracted 1.4 million people worldwide to participate, and she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, making her the youngest person ever to be named Time magazine’s Person of the Year. In terms of the overall social engagement of the younger generation, social media users worldwide have reached nearly 3.6 billion by 2020 (most of them in East Asia), with the younger generation, unsurprisingly, making up the vast majority. The George Floyd incident is a testament to this global engagement: within two weeks of the incident, nearly 2.3 million people in more than 140 countries, the vast majority of whom were under the age of 40, had expressed their opinions in social media.
It is not difficult to observe this phenomenon: Our world is actually in the middle of a potential contradiction. On the one hand, the older generation, mainly the “post-1960s generation”, still controls the direction of human history. On the other hand, the surging younger generation is beginning to exert more and more influence. How to interpret this phenomenon? What are its implications?
The first thing to note is that this phenomenon is not caused by differences in fertility rates. Throughout history, the young and middle-aged group (20-70) has been the largest group of the population. The “younger generation” we observe today has also been around in the past, but it is difficult to hear their voices in the past. The reason is that before the information age, any stable society was organised in a “pyramid” form: Older generation, with more experience, resources, and experience, naturally had more control over the development of the society. The younger generation, on the other hand, even if they have different views on the development of society, do not have enough influence to make their voices heard, so they were the “noise” of society and have no real influence (the only exception may be the issue of nationalism). Due to the limitations of social structure, it is difficult for young people to form a cohesive group except in extreme cases (e.g. large social movements such as revolutions). The end result is a long period of learning and waiting before the “younger generation” can “seize” the power.
However, the emergence of information technology (especially the emergence of mobile Internet technology) has completely changed this state of affairs: the mobile Internet has broken the previous hierarchical structure of information transmission, and subsequently established a more homogeneous and egalitarian model. Under this new model, the ideas and suggestions of young people can quickly find a resonance in the network, thus integrating a large number of the previously unstructured younger generation into a collective whole that cannot be ignored. The Internet has become a major battleground for the influence of young people: People of different nationalities, ethnic groups and beliefs are exchanging information in cyberspace at an extremely fast pace, and are rapidly becoming a social force that cannot be ignored. In this respect, today’s younger generation is much more turbulent, not because of the decline of the older generation but because the younger generation has found a way to voice out.
It should also be pointed out that since the Western world is in an indisputable dominant position in both technology and culture, this new mode of communication not only amplifies the influence of young people, but also subtly influences their thinking mode. As a result, “Western values” begin to become “universal values”. This is proven by how Greta Thunberg, #metoo, the social movements in Belarus, and even the Floyd incidents can spread their influence around the world in a short period of time. Considering the younger generation has fewer social resources than the older generation, and that younger generation is prone to extremes of thoughts, another direct consequence of this intergeneration of population and information model is the tendency of the entire world to polarize social trends, i.e., either absolute egalitarianism on the left or extreme nationalism on the right. In fact, something similar happened once before in the 1920s and 1930s, and that disagreement was finally resolved at the cost of tens of millions of lives.
Finally, the implications of this phenomenon need to be observed in several aspects. First and foremost, the breaking down of information barriers between countries means that the line between “domestic” and “foreign” will become increasingly blurred, which seems to be an irreversible trend for both the U.S. and China. Second, at the domestic political level, the “collective of the younger generation” has become a political force that cannot be ignored. In countries with advanced electoral systems, this power is usually reflected at the ballot box; and in countries with less access to political participation, the influence of the younger generation does not disappear into thin air, but rather builds up under pressure and ends up having a more dramatic impact on society (North Korea may be the only exception, as the vast majority of its population is completely isolated from the Internet). The protest movements that have swept the world since 2019 are a manifestation of this influence. Thirdly, at the diplomatic level, the changes in political themes brought about by the intergeneration population will greatly influence international relations in the future and have an impact on relations between countries. For example, economic issues should be the main content of China-EU relations, but due to the phenomenon and influence mentioned above, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who advocates an economy-based approach, is now facing all kinds of opposition in Germany, with many leaders accusing her of “abandoning the pursuit of European values”. For another example, the current U.S. President Donald Trump has little interest in environmental issues, which is also a kind of neglect of the international youth ideological trend; this will promote the future U.S. government to increase the importance of environmental issues in the U.S. foreign policy spectrum.
Final analysis conclusion:
In general, with the help of mobile Internet technology and social media, the structure of conventional information transmission has been fundamentally changed, and the direct impact is the rise of the younger generation’s participation and influence in the social and political field. This is an issue that all politicians and policymakers must consider if they want to make a difference in the future. Otherwise, they will be surprised by the changes that will arise.
Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.
Mr. Yu(Tony) Pan serves as the associate research fellow and the research assistantof Mr. Chen Gong, Founder, Chairman, and the Chief Researcher of ANBOUND. He obtained his master’s degree at George Washington University, the ElliottSchool of International Affairs; and his bachelor’s degree in University ofInternational Business and Economics in Beijing. Mr. Pan has published pieces invarious platform domestically and internationally. He currently focuses onAsian Security, geopolitics in Indo-Pacific region and the U.S.-Sino Relations.