Spenders, not savers, post-90s Chinese drive consumption growth in China

A survey has found that people in China born in the 1990s, called the post-90s generation, are largely non-savers and are more willing to spend on themselves.
A survey has found that people in China born in the 1990s, called the post-90s generation, are largely non-savers and are more willing to spend on themselves.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - Ms Gao Xiangwen, 25, is willing to spend money to "buy time and convenience", by her own admission.

Thus she owns a car for the independence it gives her and the speed with which she can move around.

Ms Gao, an editor of a media website of an investment agency, earns about 6,000 to 7,000 yuan (S$1,220 to S$1,430) a month and is paying the car loan herself. Compared with Singapore, cars are in China relatively cheap, with new ones costing as little as 50,000 yuan.

A few months ago, after acquiring a pet cat, she bought a robot vacuum cleaner to sweep up cat hair, sparing her time and effort doing so herself.

But she is no mindless shopper, going on the internet mostly, or the malls occasionally, to shop only when she has a need to.

Along the way, if she finds something she likes online, apart from what she is looking for, she would put it in her shopping cart. She would go back a few days later to decide if she still wants this item.

Brands don't matter to her, but "quality does", she says.

  • Post-90s consumers of China, those born between 1990 and 1999, are digital natives who grew up in an era of unprecedented wealth.
    They are confident and optimistic about their country’s and their own future, according to a survey by McKinsey on Chinese consumers.
    They are largely non-savers and more willing to spend on themselves compared with their parents, who grew up in a less prosperous era.
    But they are not a homogeneous group. McKinsey divided them into five distinct segments:

  • - Happiness seekers: Born after 1995 and mainly students, they make up 39 per cent of the post-90s generation. They define success in terms of their own happiness rather than material possessions. They value quality and will do research before shelling out their hard-earned money for things. They are also more environmentally conscious with 53 per cent saying they would pay a premium for an environmentally friendly product compared with 46 per cent of all respondents
    - Success seekers: Well-educated and white-collar, they make up 27 per cent of the group. Success to them is getting rich (64 per cent against 55 per cent of the average post-90s consumer). They work hard and reward themselves for doing so by buying what they like whenever they like.
    - The “laid-back”: Making up 16 per cent of the cohort, they don’t measure success by material wealth and have little interest in branded or high-tech goods. Instead, they are preoccupied with living better than others.
    - Spendthrifts: Making up 10 per cent of the cohort, they grew up in households where their material needs are met by their parents. Well-educated high earners, they are most willing among the post-90s to spend money on the latest fashions, top brands and leisure activities.
    - Homebirds: This is a low-income group making up 8 per cent of the cohort. They are predominantly female (68 per cent), live at home and are dependent on their parents, especially for big-ticket items. They are also gloomy in their outlook about their future and are most likely to save for a rainy day.

Ms Gao is a member of the post-90s - those born in the 1990s - Chinese consumers who are a new engine of consumption in China, according to a survey published last week by the consultancy McKinsey.

In its survey of nearly 10,000 consumers aged 18 to 65 across 44 cities and seven rural villages and towns, it found that the post-90s generation - or those aged 27 and below - grew up in a China unknown to their parents. It is one that is marked by extraordinary levels of wealth, exposure to Western culture and access to new technologies.

Growing up as they do at a time of unprecedented wealth and having mainly not experienced the hardship and deprivation of their parents and grandparents, they are largely non-savers and more willing to spend on themselves.

"Comprising 16 per cent of China's population today, this consumer cohort is, by our projections, going to account for more than 20 per cent of total consumption growth in China between now and 2030, higher than any other demographic segment," the report said.

Given their propensity to spend, this generation of Chinese would "help China shift towards a consumption-driven economy", said Mr Felix Poh, one of the report's authors, in a phone interview with The Straits Times.

After decades of investment-led, export-driven growth, China has in recent years been moving towards growth driven by domestic consumption.

Professor Hong Tao from the Beijing Technology and Business University said a consumption-led economy is taking shape in China, pointing out that consumption made up 64.7 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2016, up from 44.9 per cent in 2010. Young people are the most active group of consumers in China today, he said.

He added, however, that the problem with young people's spending habits was the over-reliance of some on parents and on credit.

Young people, he said, were more willing to "use tomorrow's money to realise today's dreams".

China's household debt has doubled in the past eight years and is expected to hit 50 per cent of GDP by the end of this year. Apart from the usual house and car loans, unsecured loans for buying items such as phones and other electronic gadgets have burgeoned.

Still, given that a large proportion of the post-90s consumers - about 40 per cent said the survey - are more environmentally conscious, they would also drive China's sharing economy, noted Mr Poh.

Concurring, Prof Hong said this was good as a sharing economy allows for a more sustainable development by reducing waste of resources.

Young people, he noted, are more willing to rent rather than own flats and to share bicycles and cars, among other things.

"The sharing economy will greatly increase the quality of life," said Prof Hong. With people using readily available bicycles provided by bike-sharing companies and sharing other modes of transport, it would mean less air pollution and fewer traffic jams and people spending less time on the road, he added.

For young people, greater willingness to rent housing or share rental housing reduces the stress of saving up to buy a flat, said Prof Hong.

  • More health conscious

  • The McKinsey survey on Chinese consumers also found that the Chinese are more health conscious than before.
    It identified five distinct groups:

    - Back to basics: Making up 25 per cent of respondents to the survey, they are nature lovers and seek out natural products. Some 72 per cent of them said they are focused on having fun and being close to nature. Pollution and food safety are big concerns to them and 55 per cent of them - opposed to 43 per cent on average - would buy natural and organic food where possible.
    - Balance seekers: Making up 30 per cent of respondents, they look to strike an equilibrium across different dimensions of health, including physical fitness, mental health and their relationship with others. To them, having a happy family is more important than amassing wealth. More than two-thirds of them are less willing to trade personal time for work.
    - Exercise enthusiasts: Making up 10 per cent of all consumers, they love to exercise and are driven by a desire for physical strength and athletic ability. Their favourite form of exercise is running, with 50 per cent doing so at least twice a week. Over half also avoid unhealthy food, take more supplements and buy more fresh food.
    - "Indifferent": Some 25 per cent of respondents say they are indifferent about their health. 
    - Driven Workaholics: Some 10 per cent say they are “driven workaholics” who are too busy for healthy living.

Another characteristic of many post-90s Chinese, noted Mr Poh, is that while compensation is important, they look for meaningful jobs and work environments that are in line with their life values.

This is true for Ms Gao, who said when she was job hunting, she looked at whether the company gave her opportunities to learn and if the job suited her interests.

Having time to read a book or spend with family is more important than earning a lot of money, she said.

Ms Zhan Tianyu, a 24-year-old graduate student of Chinese traditional medicine, chose to train as a Chinese physician to help others.

She also wants a working life that is not too fast-paced. Instead of working in a hospital, she would work at a clinic where she can choose work hours that will give her time to rest and read, she said.

Asked how such attitudes might affect China's economy, Prof Hong said he is not too worried.

For this is an era in which technology - including artificial intelligence and robotics - is taking over many functions of human labour.

"We may not need so many workers and people also need not work so many hours as before," he said.

Perhaps most important for China going forward is that the post-90s Chinese are confident and optimistic about their future.

"China's post-90s have never felt a downturn in their economy so they are much more confident about their country's economy," as opposed to their Western counterparts, noted Mr Poh.

He hopes this optimism will mean young Chinese see themselves playing a meaningful role in "the most dynamic and vibrant economy in the world".

This would mean increased innovation and entrepreneurship and a focus on enterprises that are sustainable, mirroring their values.

Said Mr Poh: "This can only mean good things for China's economy... and would help China's standing in the world, especially if it is seen as tackling meaningful issues through social enterprise."