Xiao-jie is 21. A senior in college, she is one of six million people who traveled overseas during China’s Golden Week holiday (Oct. 1-7). Japan was her destination. The trip cost about 10,000 yuan (about $1,500), which her parents paid for. As the only child in the family, Xiao-jie gets pretty much everything she wants.
The same is true for her friend who traveled with her.
Xiao-jie and her friend are not alone. According to China National Administration of Tourism, more than 120 million Chinese traveled abroad in 2015, spending $194 billion. About half of those Chinese travelers were millennials–born after the 1980–and they accounted for two-thirds of Chinese outbound travel spending.
The travel industry is excited to target “wealthy” Chinese millennials. While some Chinese young people are from wealthy families, most of them are not. But compared to Western millennials, they have two significant advantages.
First, Chinese millennials aren’t indebted with student loans. Chinese parents save and spend as much as it takes to send their children to college. For example, Xiao-jie studies fashion design in a college on the outskirts of Hangzhou. Her parents pay for her education. When she graduates from college, she will have no student debt.
Most Chinese college graduates are in the same situation. According to Tuition.io, the average cost of tuition is $2,200 per year–relatively affordable to Chinese families. In addition, Chinese culture shuns borrowing. Student loans are unheard of and unavailable.
This is very different from the American millennial generation. Those in their 20s are overwhelmed with student loans, which amount to some $1.3 trillion. More than seven million student borrowers are in default and millions are still struggling to repay their loans.
Second, many Chinese millennials don’t have housing expenses. About 90 % of Chinese households own their homes, and 80 % of these homes are owned without mortgages or any other leans. For example, Xiao-jie’s family already owns two condominiums. Both were purchased with cash. Xiao-jie’s father works in a state-owned utility company. Her mother is an administrator for a hospital. Though not rich, they are a typical middle class family with a comfortable life.
This situation is not unusual in China. Many people I talked to own multiple homes, which were all bought with cash. Again, culturally, Chinese are not accustomed to financing a home with a mortgage. Also, there are very few financial products on the market. Many Chinese put their cash in real estate, and view it as an investment.
Even some migrant workers own a home. They may not be able to buy a home in the big cities where they work, but they can buy a home in their hometown or village, many of which have grown into cities with millions of residents.
In comparison, American millennials are expected to buy their own homes. Few can afford one. Those who do buy a home spend a big chunk of their income on a mortgage. Aspire to travel? They are restricted in their spending.
That is why Chinese millennials are spenders. Without student loans and mortgages that typically burden Western millennials, Chinese young people spend all of their incomes. Recent research by Professor Michele Geraci at Zhejiang University shows that Chinese under 35 save nothing.
The picture is not all rosy for Chinese millennials. Xiao-jie is starting to worry about finding a job after college. But whether she can find a job or not, she is unlikely to have any harsh financial consequences. Chances are she will live with her parents, which is expected in Chinese families. Or she can live in their second condominium. Thus, she will likely continue to travel even though she is without income.
By 2020, Chinese millennials are expected to reach 300 million strong, compared to 80 million in the U.S. They are the second generation of Chinese consumers. Unlike their parents’ generation, they are less ostentatious and won’t spend several months’ income to buy a Louis Vutton bag. They want to live in the moment and see travel as a way to expand their horizons. However, they are also a diversified group. Some may still travel with groups; others want to seek out individualized experiences. Some will indulge in luxury; others want to focus on family and kids activities.
I can see that Xiao-jie and her friend will be part of this increasingly diversified group of global travelers. This time, they went to Japan with a tourist group. Next time they may stay with Airbnb and learn more about the locals wherever they may be.
Chinese millennials are not all wealthy. But they do have disposable incomes to spend–be it their own or their parents’.