How to Eat Your Parents
This is a story about Xiao Li, who likes to eat his parents. Xiao Li is 26. He used to work as an engineer in Beijing, but now he lives at home. He has quit his job because he ran into a wage ceiling and thought the food in the capital was bad. Now Xiao Li is waiting for the Spring Festival rush to end before starting to search again. He waits on his parent’s couch. His parents are normally lovely folks, but of late Xiao Li’s incessant gnawing and nibbling has befouled their moods. His mother used to cook for us whenever we would come by. Now she just grunts as she sweeps the place clean. At first it was strange, he says, eating his parents. Pausing to look up from a computer game, he reflects, “Like anything else, you just get used to it.”
Xiao Li does not physically eat his parents. He bites into their futures. 啃老族，pronounced kěnlǎozú, or Parent Eater in English, is a term created and popularized by the Chinese media around 2012. This grisly moniker refers to China’s ‘80s babies now turned adults who still rely on their parents for financial support. In the same way people “啃”a bone for the last scraps of meat, so too are young Chinese gnawing on their parent’s financial resources. Even if those that are employed, these young financial cannibals are not able to support the heavy expense in China’s urbanizing cities. Some label the 啃老族phenomenon a problem, others call it a social epidemic. Now more and more Chinese college graduates like Xiao Li are looking towards their parents for funds. How much? Xiao Li’s mom often quips, “about an arm and a leg.”
Spoiled Kids or Rotten System?
Some Chinese media outlets blame parenting. Others fault the “little emperor” treatment: “Over-doted on kids make over-dependent adults.” Though these are factors, it seems that the Parent Eating phenomenon spawns from a Chinese tradition ill equipped to handle China’s modernization race.
The maladaptation of an old financial system to a radically new financial environment is forcing the Parent Eater mutation. China’s structure for and customs surrounding 代际关系, inter-generational relationships, have long enabled Parent Eating through an “I eat you, you eat me later” type of system. China’s parent-child relationship structure operates on the Confucian 反哺模式, which translates roughly to the “return and feed model.”
The first generation takes care of the second generation, and then, later in life, the second generation is expected to return and take care of the first generation. Many Chinese have historically owned homes, married, and settled down younger than most of their western counterparts. Is this because it is a nation of child tycoons? No, it is because of helpful parents and supportive family systems. That support is meant to be repaid in the form of a sort of familial social security. Only recently has a formal pension plan been introduced to China, with most relying on savings and the support of family to glide into their later years (Today, only 15 percent of Chinese workers have some form of central, provincial, or local pension fund).
Most Westerners see this familial form of eldercare and call it “filial piety;” The prolonged support of China’s youth—the front end of the bargain—often gets overlooked. Permitting young Chinese to nibble on their parents is contingent upon their folks doing some nibbling down the road.
Continuing to employ this system in a modern setting, light nibbling has progressed to binge eating, and Chinese parents are being picked clean. Chinese 20-somethings don’t have enough cash, and China’s urbanization frenzy is most at fault.
Urbanization and Tradition Collide
Rampant urbanization and the ensuing spike in city living costs have over-stressed China’s traditional generational financial system. The steady pour of people into cities has propelled the pace of rising city costs to a heady rush. Prices city living, working, dating, marriage, raising children—their upsurge, like China’s economy, has been sharp, steep, and fast. As Tsinghua University’s sociology professor Chen Hui writes, “Social development pressure has increased an individual’s subsistence and living costs, so much so that one generation can no longer succeed alone, but rather two generations must apportion the load.” Flailing in that rush of city costs, graduates latch on to their parents and dig in deep.
Housing is the simplest example of urbanization-wrought financial havoc. If Parent Eaters have become a unique species, housing costs might be their evolutionary Law of the Minimum. Liebig’s Law of the Minimum refers to the least abundant necessary resource in an environment. In the desert, water is the most precious resource and so successful species must adapt around it—think owls living in cacti, camels carrying water in humps. China’s least abundant resource: affordable housing. China’s housing market has long been at the center of “bubble” conversations, with inflated prices floating disproportionately out of reach of average workers. Scarce housing presses young people to adapt, and this pressure has accelerated the proliferation of the Parent Eating trait.
Tradition and Housing
Housing is an especially pointed topic for China because, first, it is absolutely necessary for marriage and, second, because parents will often shoulder the cost. It is customary. Exceptions are few and considered bizarre. Yet as housing costs spike, an apartment will now cost parents that arm and leg Xiao Li’s mom referred to. Several young Chinese friends have related nightmares they’ve had about housing costs, the current prices inscribed on the inside of their eyelids as they try to go to bed. Ask anyone on the street of graduating age what the current housing prices across China’s major cities and they will intone them with scientific accuracy and a touch of religious awe. Most can also rattle off Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou’s most recent figures. It is uncanny, an obsession shading the lens with which young Chinese view their prospective futures.
Young Chinese twenty-somethings are caught in a trap of social expectations exceeding financial realities. Urbanization, modernization, and overloud media hubs heralding “progress” have beckoned in a new era of Chinese lifestyle before it has arrived for everyone. In an article titled “We don’t want to eat, we have no choice to eat,” a Chinese 24 year old laments being unable to afford a modern lifestyle on most jobs’ low wages. Although Chinese students are graduating college in numbers greater than ever before—over 7 million this year compared with 1 million in 1999—they are greeted by headlines like “Millions of Chinese are about to experience the worst year in history to graduate.” As Xiao Li puts it, there aren’t enough professionally paid jobs for professionally trained workers.
The high-end jobs with high-end wages simply aren’t there yet. The current size of the Chinese economy seems to distort our perception of the nature of its strength. China’s modern economy began as production economy just over 30 years ago, a low-end labor economy that has been transitioning with phenomenal speed to a high-end production and service economy. What logically followed was rampant urbanization and a change in lifestyle expectations, but the housing, job and wage levels have not kept pace with these rising expectations. The Parent Eaters are products of this lag—their struggle represents that gap between expectation and reality.
Fighting Back Against Parent Eaters
What’s the fix to the Parent Eater problem? Several Chinese editorials suggest government control over the housing market. If the housing market gets reined in, kids won’t lean on their parents as much, can become financially independent at a younger age, eat less into their parents savings, and so have to support their parents less as they ascend into retirement. Is this solution to scale with the size of the problem and the demographic demands on the longstanding tradition? Xiao Li’s mom and I talk about this from time to time. She doesn’t know the solution either, and has a foreboding sense of their being none. The tangle of Chinese tradition in modern living makes solutions difficult to extricate without cutting something perceived as culturally important. Modernization with Chinese qualities is difficult: how do you choose which traditions to keep and which to lose? Now is not the time for these sorts of macro-cultural quandaries. Xiao Li is hungry, and his mother must give him something to eat.