Cosseted, underpaid -- and now occupying their legislature.
Prior to the dramatic occupation of Taiwan's legislature by students on March 18, young Taiwanese in their 20s had either been dubbed the "strawberry generation" -- supposedly fragile and squishy -- or the "22K generation," named for the meager monthly salary of 22,000 Taiwan dollars, or $730, that university graduates can expect to make. Those two rather unflattering labels summed up the reality many young Taiwanese faced: Generally speaking, their parents had furnished them with a solid education and material comfort in an age of relative abundance. But Taiwanese youth are entering the workforce at a crossroads for the island's economy and a time of economic hardship for young people around the globe, and their anxiety is starting to show.
Few could have predicted that these lowly paid softies harbored so much energy. Hundreds of them rushed into the Legislative Yuan, the island's legislature, on March 18 and paralyzed it for almost three weeks, while thousands more sat on the streets outside, singing songs, making speeches, and shouting slogans, all in protest of a trade deal with mainland China that the ruling Kuomintang party, or KMT, tried to pass in the legislature without discussing the pact item by item. Following a compromise by the legislature's speaker -- but no promise for withdrawal of the pact -- students announced on April 7 that they would leave the legislature before the week's end. But as this episode of student activism draws to an apparent end, the intergenerational conversation about Taiwan's uncertain political and economic future is only beginning.
The political assertiveness and relative economic impotence of young Taiwanese is proving a combustible mixture. Chen Po-Chih, a Taiwanese economist and former government advisor, pointed out in a 2010 book, Unspoken Secrets of ECFA (the acronym is a framework economic agreement with China), that Taiwan's young people had entered an age of "low employment, low wages, and low achievement." According to a government survey, average unemployment rates were 13.8 percent among 20 to 24 year olds and 7.1 percent among 25-29 year olds in 2013, much higher than the island's total average of 4.2 percent. Even for those young people with jobs, prospects aren't bright. The average monthly salary for 20 to 24 year olds in 2013 was only $806, or about half of the total average. About 88 percent of young Taiwanese under 30 make less than $1,330 per month.
According to a recent survey conducted by BusinessToday, a Taiwanese magazine, 62.9 percent of young people in Taiwan believed that they will be worse off than their parents, 61.5 percent thought their future was "hopeless" or "very hopeless," and 82.2 percent said they did not think problems like high housing prices and low salaries would improve within the next five years.
If Taiwan's Gen-Y cannot take pride in the island's stagnant economy, they have found empowerment in its democratic society. Unlike their parents and grandparents, who have lived under one-party rule in Taiwan, this generation of young people grew up with freedom of expression, rule of law, separation of powers, and legitimate -- if sometimes rambunctious -- elections. They are also more likely than their elders to have little or no direct ties to mainland China and to have studied "de-Sinicized" textbooks that separated Taiwan's history from mainland China's. One survey conducted in February 2014 indicated that 68.5 percent of young Taiwanese between the ages of 20 and 29 (who number 3.2 million) desired eventual independence for Taiwan, and 82.7 percent opposed eventual unification with China.
But economic reality, however unfavorable, must be acknowledged. Taiwan is a highly export-dependent economy, with China taking up a full one-third of its exports. The Taiwanese populace has long converted to the gospel of free trade, rarely questioning the primacy of economic growth. The protesting students have to convince some parents, corporate bosses, government officials, economic experts, and other guardians of the economy that they do not fear global competition. Protesting students have written open letters to their parents and organized press conferences called "Mom and dad, please listen to me." One young woman who joined the protest has tried to support herself after her parents cut off financial support in response.
Differences in information consumption habits have also driven a generational divide. On PTT, a BBS forum popular with Taiwan students, some of the most heated discussions center on how to communicate with skeptical "grown-ups" who are averse to new media. One complained that a glance on Facebook, Taiwan's social network of choice, makes it seem the anti-trade agreement crowd has the upper hand, but when he gets home he has found that his family thinks "that the students were just messing things up." Another admitted that he had "given up talking to mom and dad" because they only read traditional media outlets. One user wrote that he tried to convince his father by "telling him what he liked to hear" first -- saying the students were being used by pro-independence politicians -- then gradually introducing anti-trade agreement websites and materials to him.
It's revealing that the generation of Taiwanese that grew up living and breathing democracy has become so distrustful of the island's institutions that many among them decided the only way to ensure a better future is to disrupt legislative proceedings and the normal functions of the political process by occupying the legislature for weeks. But there's no debating that the island's politicians have taken notice of the youngsters' worries and demands. Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng has promised that a new bill to provide legislative oversight on pacts with the mainland would be passed before the trade deal goes forward.
The pro-status quo party has both the presidency and a majority in the legislature. But as protesting students and occupiers become regular voters, they may tilt Taiwan's political landscape toward the pro-independence camp. The Chinese government has so far said little about the upheaval over the trade pact, but likely looks upon such demographic trends with wariness. In time, Taiwan's strawberry generation may not need to occupy the legislature, express their views at the voting booth instead.