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Doug Saunders

The world's largest annual human migration, the chun-yun, has been unfolding all week here in big-city China. It's an extraordinary sight: Hundreds of thousands of people jamming the streets around every bus and train station for the spring festival (known in the West as Chinese New Year), when hundreds of millions of Chinese people go to their faraway village to visit their parents – and often their children – for a couple of weeks.

Here in Shenzhen, the majority of whose 12 million residents are recent migrants from inland cities, it is as if the whole huge city is emptying out. An entire generation is on the move and, for China, it is a most unique, assertive and potentially destabilizing generation.

You can gauge, in these crowds, the state of the vast Chinese economy and the mood of the world's most populous country. Doing so has become a national sport: A dip in the sale of train-station dumplings is said to show wages falling as a result of China's recent stock-market turmoil; a sharp decline in the number of return tickets shows that employment levels and industrial exports are faltering. But most telling is the age, occupation and educational status of the homeward-bound crowds: This is not your father's China.

"The image we have is of peasant farmers coming to the coastal cities to work as industrial labourers, and that was the population that defined China right up to 2011," says Yu Jianrong, the head of the social-issues research centre at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and a well-known online critic of government policies. "But now, the really dominant group aren't farmers but younger people from inland provinces who have some education, and are expecting to get good jobs and settle permanently in the cities. They are having a hard time realizing those dreams, and that is creating a lot of tension in China today."

China's millennial generation is unlike any cohort seen before. For one thing, it is the world's first, and only, generation almost entirely composed of only children, products of the one-child policy that lasted from 1980 until its abolition last year (in practice, Chinese twentysomethings tell me that between two-thirds and three-quarters of their classmates were only children).

Because of this, even if their parents were poor and rural, they pushed their lone children through as much education as possible, and placed very high expectations on their children to find good employment, housing and marriages. A great many of these millennials – perhaps 100 million – were also all but abandoned by their parents, who worked in cities and saw their kids once a year; this has left some of them rebellious or alienated and others obsessively determined to live better lives.

Combine that with the fact that this is the first generation not to have known any economic reality but China's post-1980s hypercapitalism, and you have an ultra-amplified version of the usual psychology of only children: pampered, attention-hungry, slightly eccentric, overeducated and given to outsized expectations.

That generation came to dominate China's newly urban population just as the country tried to make a big shift – after the 2008 economic crisis and especially after Xi Jinping became Communist Party chief in 2012 – from being a low-cost, export-oriented manufacturing economy to being a higher-income, middle-class consumer economy. The educated twentysomethings fully expected they would not be living in eight-person-to-a-room factory dormitories in their adult lives, as many of their parents did.

Yet that sort of life is exactly what many of them have found. Housing is prohibitively expensive: Apartments in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou now cost as much as in Toronto or Vancouver, but skilled salaries are, at best, a quarter as high.

The result is an often-frustrated generation of twenty– and thirtysomethings. "There's a real risk in these cities as educated workers fail to get housing and social mobility fails," says He Yanling, a professor of public-sector management at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou. "We've already had localized riots in many cities, but unless we address this housing crisis, rioting and protests against government could become a widespread phenomenon."

When the trains return later this month, they will disgorge hundreds of millions of well-fed young people, their ears ringing with the traditional New Year greeting: "Wishing you greater wealth." But it will be an awkward return, because that wish isn't yet coming true.

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