When family ties can strangle

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 July, 2006, 12:00am

Sociologists used to claim that the Chinese family was on the verge of being destroyed by modernisation. The younger generations, they said, would be financially self-sufficient and mentally independent - thus more likely to live apart from their parents and grandparents.

But those sociologists have to bite their tongues now. As the 21st century unfolds, nuclear families - if not extended families - in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland appear to be stronger than ever. Young people have become extremely dependent on their families for financial and emotional support.

Let me tell you two stories.

A few years ago, my Uncle Ben and his wife, both professionals in Hong Kong, began to wonder about the behaviour of their only son. This soft-spoken, handsome young man rejected the chance for graduate studies at an ivy-league school in the United States - an opportunity Uncle Ben could not have dreamed of in his younger days. The young man returned from the US with a bachelor degree, and seems to have developed a strange attachment to the family. He has no intention of moving out of their apartment, and shows no interest in searching for a wife.

In the second story, a colleague of mine recently visited her older sister in Chengdu. She was amazed to find that her two nieces were determined to continue living with their mother even though both planned to marry in a year or two. When asked why, the young women said nothing about loving or helping their mother: instead, they pointed to her house - located in the heart of the downtown, with two spare rooms. It would be much more convenient to stay, they said, to enjoy life in the city while saving on rent.

Make no mistake: these young people are not abnormal. They are collectively known as ken lao zu - 'the elderly-eaters'. As the term suggests, they live off the savings and pensions of their parents. Such young adults can be found in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the mainland, and their number is growing.

In Taiwan, a survey last year found that 30 per cent of university graduates chose to stay out of the structured job market. More often than not, these well-educated young people depended on subsidies from their families.

In the mainland, an estimated 30 per cent of adults are being supported by their parents or grandparents through cash allowances, free accommodation, meals and laundry services. Some are job seekers who have not found any work sufficiently exciting or lucrative. Others dream about new adventures but lack experiences or concrete ideas.

It has long been normal for Chinese families to live together until the children get married. But the sociologists evidently overlooked the combined effects of modernisation and Chinese tradition. Today's young adults grew up in relative affluence and were given undivided attention at home - while imbibing a host of new ideas such as individuality and self-fulfillment. Now their baby-boomer parents are suddenly discovering that their children are self-centred and unprepared for the responsibilities of adulthood.

Chinese families may continue to live under one roof, just as before. But the relationship between generations is no longer the same. Piety - one of the traditional values - used to mean unconditional love and support for senior family members. But that has been completely turned upside down by the ken lao zu.

Kitty Poon, a research fellow at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong, is a part-time member of the government's Central Policy Unit