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China worker suicides: a lost generation?

Amid hand-wringing and rising labor unrest, some blame generational change and the media.

What has changed, some analysts say, is the workers themselves. Today's Chinese Foxconn employees are a "second wave" of migrant workers, much different than their predecessors who first moved from China's hinterlands to coastal areas for better jobs, say commentators.

In China they're part of the "post-80" and "post-90" generations, named for their birthdates. They're stereotyped as more ambitious, more self-centered, more impulsive, and more vulnerable to pressure than their elders. That's not always a good fit with a highly regimented, impersonal, jumbo-sized factory jobs like those at Foxconn.

Such youth are typecast as "little emperors": pampered, only children resulting from China's one-child policy, and born after the Cultural Revolution that defined their elders in a crucible of chaos. The Foxconn employees who fell from buildings were aged between 18 and 24, putting them right at the transition from the post-80 to post-90 generation.

The post-90 generation, raised on an exploding Internet culture, has come in for special attention — as well as scorn — for their embrace of Japanese, Taiwanese and Korean pop culture, including the Japanese "culture of cute," and for their supposed promiscuity.

They've been called the "brain-damaged tribe," after a type of garbled "brain-damaged" script some use on blogs, instant messages and chat room services like the popular QQ.

A 2008 survey of 800 students at Wuhan University found post-90 youths to be more "open-minded" than their elders but "less able to cope with frustration," according to a report in Xinhua.

Paul Yip, from the Hong Kong Jockey Club Centre for Suicide Research and Prevention, put the change in workers themselves at the top of his list of factors behind the suicides, along with a stressful work environment, lack of government oversight, the mass media, and neglect of workers' mental well-being. "We have a new cohort and generation here," said Yip.

"The so-called post-80s or post-90s babies, when they grew up in the countryside and studied in school, they were given a lot of flexibility and freedom," said Yip. "But when they go to Foxconn, their whole lifestyle, everything changes. This causes a lot of stress."

"Twenty or 30 years ago, the environment was much worse, but those people were tough, willing to work for it and to earn the money," Yip said. "But these young people, they are not that tough. They don't want to come to the city to face hardship, they want a new life. But their new life turns out to be working 12 to 14 hours per day. They are not prepared for this situation."

An open letter from nine Hong Kong and mainland sociologists made similar points. "Many second generation migrant workers, unlike their parents’ generation, have no thought of returning home to become peasants again. In this respect, they have started out on a road to the city from which they won’t return."

"When there is no possibility of finding work by which they can settle in the city, the meaning comes crashing down: the road ahead is blocked, the road back is already closed. The second generation of
migrant workers are trapped."

Yip says the Chinese media may have also fueled a contagion effect of copycat suicides.