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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Improvised Lives: Individualization, Youth, and the Transition to Adulthood in Rural China

  • Author(s): Strickland, Michael
  • Advisor(s): Yan, Yunxiang
  • et al.

The youth of China in recent decades have borne the brunt of rapid social change. Those born in the 1980s and early 1990s, and who came of age in the early 21st century, grew up under conditions not merely different from those known to earlier generations, but conditions that were radically new for China. This much is no surprise, having already been witnessed and commented upon by any number of researchers and scholars and with increasing frequency since the start of China's Reform Era in 1978. These observations, however, have often come piecemeal, and what has been most lacking is a more precise and theoretically coherent understanding of youth experience. In this dissertation I draw on individualization theory to examine the collective experiences of a number of rural Chinese youth as they made their way into adulthood in the early 2000s. Looking by turns at the environment in which they grew up, their struggles to find jobs and get ahead, their choices in marriage, their fixation on material comfort and success, and the fraying and diffusion of their social ties, this text seeks to build a portrait of a particular group of youth, and through them depict and describe a systematic change in Chinese society. The road to adulthood for Chinese youth is no longer what it once was; traditional models and structures have fallen away, with new and unfamiliar structures arising in their place; old norms have been upended or, where they still stand, can no longer be met by the same means as before. The result of all of this is that young Chinese have greater personal freedom than ever, and yet also less security. And if they hope to meet the ideals of life success that they, their families, and Chinese society at large holds out for them, then there are no set paths to follow, and they must improvise their own way forward.

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