By Rick King and Chang Wang, contributors
Editor’s Note: Both Rick King and Chang Wang consider themselves lucky, and the luckiness is generational. King, a “baby boomer” who was born in California and grew up in Massachusetts, believes overall, his generation is better off than his parents’ and his children’s; Wang, originally from Beijing, belongs to “Generation ’89” in China, even believes his generation is the luckiest in Chinese history since 1842.
China Insight invites King and Wang to author a conversational style essay to compare the lives and the key characteristics of the “baby boomers” in the U.S. and the “Generation ’89” in China.
The first of this four-part series defines who the boomer and Generation ’89 are in the U.S. and China respectively. The subsequent parts will describe, contrast and compare the various economic and societal factors that affect and shape the two groups in their respective countries.
Part I: Defining Generations
King: I am part of the so-called baby -boom generation, born between the end of WWII and up to around 1964. Coming out of the war and being born in the 1950s, the boomers experienced no world war, a booming economy, and the industrialization of the United States, which was pretty significant at the time. People had come back from the war; companies were expanding, and the wartime footing turned into a really robust economy for quite a while. It’s a large group of people seeing rapid expansion of housing, and of suburbs containing housing and schools.
As a child, you were rarely alone. It seemed that the world was geared toward children, spurred by parents who had been gone during the wartime. The parents’ time was a lot tougher because they were the children of the war and children of the depression. They tended to be conservative and frugal, but our generation began to experience a lot bigger world, though not the broadest part of the world.
During the early 50s, the Korean War occurred, although it was not a war in the sense of WWII. It was more of what the historians called a “policing activity.” From the United States’ point of view, the United States was trying to prevent the spread of certain lifestyle, ideology, and governmental form, similar to that of the Soviet Union and with which we did not agree. So the Korean War was different, in that we were not all involved in the war. This kind of war was “police action,” and it was quite limited, so that the whole U.S. economy was not thrown behind it. The Korean Conflict was unpopular in some areas because of the “police action” nature. Even people coming from the war did not show the same commitment as we had seen in WWI and WWII.
One defining moment for my group was the Vietnam War, which, again, was not a war that involved everybody and did not throw the whole economy behind it. It was worse than the Korean War in the sense that the whole country was not fully behind the people who participated in the war, as evidenced by widespread social unrest. That unrest was very prevalent when I went to high school. By the time I went to college, the draft had ended and the war had ended. But the Vietnam War was a very defining moment in my middle school and high school years.
Then why, given these events, making things good for my generation? Because even though the country was in conflicts, not the entire country was involved in the conflicts. To most people, it was a booming economy that invited participation. You were not much impacted by those wars. You saw the news, but not everybody was participating in the wars. For some, it was a time of some stability; of course, for those in the war, it was not a good time at all. But there were many ways for people to defer their commitment to the war. I was too young then. I had a draft card, but I was not selected to go. When I went to college, the war was pretty much done. The focus of my generation was on the big growing country. Despite all those conflicts, we did not have all these terrorist organizations around at that time.
When I think about my son and daughter, who are in their early 30s, for them and their children, the world has a whole new set of conflicts, totally different from those before. Somewhere between my generation and my children’s’ generation, people have had to learn new ways to get on an airplane. They have to worry about terrorists who do not hesitate to take the life of children. It is a whole different level of conflict. Guerrilla warfare is potentially in everybody’s neighborhood now. The generations after mine learnt that through 9/11. My son was in his late teens at that time. When you think about something like that, if you compare the levels of security of their generation and mine, they’ve had to deal with a very different world. My parents’ generation was involved in WWII, and my kids are involved in the world full of these scary entities entirely dedicated to the destruction of the United States, simply because they do not agree with our ideology. The fear and lack of safety that the younger generation and their children are experiencing are radically different from what my generation experienced. Looking at generations between the WWII and terrorism as we know it today, overall my generation was much secured. My generation fought two wars half the world away, but my children are fighting a “war” in their own towns and cities.
Wang: It makes perfect sense to me to compare generations with the level of security and the sense of security. FDR proposed four fundamental freedoms that people "everywhere in the world" ought to enjoy: freedom of speech; freedom of worship; freedom from want; and freedom from fear.
Now let’s look at China: Modern China started in 1842, the end of the First Opium War. Since then, almost every single generation witnessed war, famine, natural disaster, political terror, one after another, enduring endless misery and suffering.
There is one exception, however, that is the generation of people born in the urban areas of China between 1962 and 1972 - the “Generation ’89.” This generation was born at the right time, in the right place, and was provided with opportunities to thrive and prosper.
We were named “Generation ’89” for the time we went to college: before, during, or after 1989, the end of a short-lived “Golden Age” of 1980s. The Tiananmen tragedy in 1989 represented the closing of the “Cultural Renaissance” and political tolerance in China. So my generation has this shared value system of the 1980s and shared traumatic experience in 1989. Nevertheless, my generation has not experienced war and famine. We cannot say with absolute certainty that there will be no war or famine in our lifetime, particularly in light of the political instability and the environmental crisis in mainland China.
Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1989
Because of the “Hukou” (Residency Permit) system in China, we have to admit that the lucky ones are mostly from the urban areas of China. Rural residents have far less opportunities than their urban counterparts do. This is a man-made caste system sanctioning discrimination and exploitation, but I am glad to see Chinese authority is reforming it.
Our generation was born after the Great Famine (1959 – 1961) caused by Mao’s disastrous political and economic policy that killed at least 37 million innocent farmers, elders and children. During our childhoods, we had very limited resources – but we didn’t starve to death, thanks to food and cloth vouchers issued to urban residents.
A 50 grams grain voucher issued in 1986 by Beijing Municipal Government
Our generation also was born before the implementation of the One Child Policy in 1979. So our generation has siblings; I have a sister. Almost everybody in this generation I know has siblings. The One Child Policy also has caused devastating effects in China, I am very glad it is over.
Overall, from early education to middle-age healthcare, in almost all the important life stages our generation, life has treated us well, and we are extremely grateful.
Teresa, Pls format these two lists as “sidebar.”
Historical incidents of the baby boomers’ birth years in the United States: 1946 - 1964
1946 President Truman proclaims end of World War II; the first general-purpose electronic computer is unveiled at the University of Pennsylvania
1947 The first practical electronic transistor is demonstrated at Bell Laboratories
1948 The first tape recorder is sold; the US Supreme Court rules that religious instruction in public schools is unconstitutional
1949 President Truman establishes rocket test range at Cape Canaveral, Florida; President Truman increases minimum wage from 40 cents to 75 cents
1950 Korean War begins; the fist TV remote control is marketed
1951 Direct-dial coast-to-coast telephone service begins in the U.S.; first regularly scheduled transatlantic flights begin operation
1952 A mechanical heart is used for first time in a human patient in Detroit; the U.S. successfully tests a hydrogen bomb
1953 The CIA helps overthrow the government of Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran; Korean War ends
1954 The first shopping mall opens in Southfield, Michigan; the first mass vaccination of children against polio begins in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; the first microbiology laboratory opens in the U.S.
1955 The first electric power generated from atomic energy is sold commercially; Vietnam War begins
1956 The first transatlantic telephone cable goes into operation; videotape is used for the first time on television; IBM introduces the first computer disk storage unit
1957 President Eisenhower orders U.S. troops to desegregate schools in Little Rock, Arkansas; the Ford Motor Company introduces the Edsel car; Toyota begins exporting vehicles to the U.S.
1958 The first successful American satellite, Explorer 1, is launched into orbit; the U.S. Army launches the Explorer 3 satellite; CBS Labs announce stereophonic records
1959 Congress passes a bill authorizing food stamps for poor Americans; Pan Am begins regular passenger flights around the world
1960 John F. Kennedy becomes the 35th President of the United States; Vietnam War escalates
1961 Astronaut Alan Sheppard becomes the first American in space; TWA shows the first in-flight movie
1962 President John F. Kennedy begins blockade of Cuba; astronaut John Glenn is first American to orbit Earth; the first Wal-Mart and K-Mart stores open
1963 Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in the District of Columbia; President John F. Kennedy is assassinated in Dallas, Texas
1964 Civil Rights Act of 1964 passes in the U.S. Senate 73-27; Dr. Martin Luther King is awarded The Nobel Peace Prize; NASA launches its first Orbital Geophysical Observatory (OGO-1)
Historical incidents of the Generation ’89 birth years in China: 1962-1972
1962 China begins to recover from the three years Great Famine (1959-1961); Sino-India Border Conflict
1963 The Communist Party of China begins “Five-Anti” campaign and “Socialist Education Movement”
1964 China conducts its first successful nuclear test
1965 Chinese scientists synthesizes crystalline bovine insulin, a bioactive protein
1966 Mao and the Communist Party of China start the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”; “The Destruction of the Four Olds” campaign destroys most of traditional culture in China; “Red Terror” (mass killings and tortures) by the Red Guards took place in urban areas
1967 Mass killings (including Hunan Daoxian Massacre) and turmoil spreads throughout China; China's first hydrogen bomb test successful; China’s judiciary and public security system collapses; British Legations in Beijing is attacked by red mob
1968 The Communist Party of China purges 70 percent of its senior members, including President Liu Shaoqi; “Down to the Countryside Movement” begins, millions of urban youth are sent to rural areas to work
1969 Sino-Soviet Border Conflict
1970 Communist Party of China starts three-year long “One Strike-Three Anti” campaign, causing over a quarter-million wrong convictions; China launches its first satellite
1971 Lin Biao, China’s second-in-command, dies after a failed coup d'état against Mao; The People’s Republic of China (mainland) replaces The Republic of China (Taiwan) as the permanent member of the United Nations Security Council
1972 Richard Nixon visits China; The U.S. and China jointly issue Shanghai Communiqué; China and UK issue joint communiqué concerning upgraded diplomatic relations; Japanese Prime Minister visits China and Japan and China issue Joint Statement
Rick King is executive vice president and Chief Information Officer at Thomson Reuters, which provides professionals with the intelligence, technology and human expertise they need to find trusted answers. King and his wife live in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Chang Wang is chief research and academic officer at Thomson Reuters. Wang and his wife live in Eagan, Minnesota.