Older generations want better lives for their children, and new ones want to do better than their parents. China remains no exception to this truism, even though hundreds of millions now do have a better life. The achievements of one generation define the expectations of the next. Progress has come from industrialisation and global demand for the nation's goods - the output of a cheap and disciplined workforce that gives the mainland a competitive edge. The key to that has been massive migration of workers from rural areas to coastal cities. But the growth model has been overtaken by generational change. It cannot meet the expectations of the children of the older migrant generation who toiled for meagre wages with which to sustain families in the countryside. They want a better life than mothers and fathers who endured low status and discrimination. More educated, they want to taste the fruits of city living. This is demonstrated by a series of factory strikes by the new generation of migrant workers demanding improved salaries and conditions and better union representation. True, they have generally targeted the operations in China of foreign corporations. Nonetheless they have been tolerated, as evidenced by wide coverage in the state media, and have in some cases secured better pay deals. Young twenty-somethings have shown tactical maturity in pursuing their rights, enlisting a respected labour-relations academic as a consultant. Hong Kong-based industrialists in the Pearl River Delta have reacted by raising wages to try to head off spreading unrest. The central government has long been aware of the new mood and its implications for stability. In his annual work report last March, Premier Wen Jiabao said allowing workers to share in the fruits of the booming economy was a priority. Beijing has been pressing local authorities to improve migrant workers' conditions but, as with some other directives, it is taking a long time to get through to officials preoccupied with achieving growth targets that are critical to advancement. Last week Wen acknowledged the grievances behind recent unrest by telling young migrant workers in Beijing: 'Our society's wealth and the skyscrapers are all distillations of your hard work and sweat. Your labour is glorious and should be respected.' Since then, President Hu Jintao has underlined the paramount importance of closing the wealth gap, and the People's Daily has said workers' incomes must be raised to protect stability. Wen's words could be taken as grist to the mill of greater expectations. But they were seen as a subtle response intended to pacify workers and discourage further strikes. If so, such caution is understandable. China faces a delicate balancing act in spreading the material fruits of the nation's economic growth. More money in workers' pockets generates higher domestic consumption - a longer-term policy aim - and less reliance on export markets, a source of tension in China's trade relations. But sooner or later it also raises the cost of Chinese goods to foreign consumers, and levels the playing field between production in China and low-cost alternatives in Asia and elsewhere. Given the role of foreign-invested enterprises in the mainland economy, and the importance of job creation to social stability, it poses a difficult challenge. Getting the balance right will be a defining test of the next generation of Communist Party leadership.