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The Young Generation as Blessing, Bridge, and Burden-bearer: Understanding Asia’s Youth

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The Young Generation as Blessing, Bridge, and Burden-bearer: Understanding Asia’s Youth

There is remarkable diversity in the experiences of Asia’s children, and incredible resilience. Young individuals play crucial roles in sustaining the daily functioning of their families and societies.

The Young Generation as Blessing, Bridge, and Burden-bearer: Understanding Asia’s Youth
Credit: Photo by note thanun on Unsplash

Asia, a continent characterized by rich cultural traditions, and rapid economic and social change, is home to more than half of the world’s children. How do they fare? What are the pains and gains, pressures and perseverance of their childhood experiences amidst a changing world? These questions have significant implications for the region and the world in decades to come. 

Drawing on 16 case studies by 20 scholars affiliated with institutions worldwide, a recently published book, “The Emerald Handbook of Childhood and Youth in Asian Societies,” which I was privileged to have co-edited, delves deep into these questions. Recognizing the distinct norm of lifelong intergenerational commitment in many societies in the region, our empirical studies focus on the key issue of intergenerational relations and its manifestation in children’s everyday experiences.

The Young Generation as Blessing

Some contributions in our book reveal how the young generation is regarded as a blessing, ensuring that cultural traditions continue to thrive amid modernization. This is especially true in communities or social groups where children’s lives remain deeply intertwined with local cultural and economic dynamics. 

In India, home to 438 million children under 18, Ravneet Kaur portrays the distinct experiences of urban and rural childhoods. While urban children’s lives are marked by greater socioeconomic advantages and structured academic training, both in and beyond formal schooling, rural children’s daily routines revolve around family activities, often centered on local agricultural tasks, reflecting their gradual integration into the economic and social dynamics of rural life. In rural settings, children are socialized into caregiving roles, early marriage is common, and they are expected to contribute to income generation and household upkeep from a young age.

In Central Asia, Elena Kim presents an insightful analysis of the “nebere aluu” practice, wherein grandparents adopt their first-born grandchild as their own youngest child, taking on the responsibility of caring for and raising them. This tradition, rooted in the cultural heritage of the Kyrgyz and Kazakh people, enjoys broad acceptance across all age groups and genders within the community. By practicing nebere aluu, families establish a complex social system of intergenerational reciprocal care, continuity, and responsibility. This system provides a significant platform for reconciling divergent perspectives on family dynamics, marriage, love, and child-rearing. However, Kim highlights that the drastic transformations in the everyday lives of Central Asian countries, while destabilizing and disorienting, may have imbued nebere aluu with new meanings.

The Young Generation as Bridge 

Asia stands out with exceptionally high levels of internal, intra-regional, and international migration rates in the world today. In 2020, it counted as the origin for more than 40 percent of the world’s international migrants. Within national borders, China reported 375.8 million internal migrants in the 2020 census, and India was estimated to have 600 million internal migrants at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amid such high volumes of population migration and mobilities, children’s role in bridging the gaps between host and home societies becomes prominent. 

Siqi Tu examines the parent-child relationships between upper-middle-class Chinese parents and their adolescent children who are “parachuted” to the United States for private high schools. She delineates various types of intergenerational relationships: those marked by more intimate connections facilitated by frequent communication despite temporal and spatial distances, mixed bonding where children undergo “accelerated growth” alongside emotional stress, and strained relationships resulting from growing geographical, cultural, or emotional distances. The diversity highlights the complexities involved in “doing family” transnationally to bridge gaps between geographical and temporal distances, between educational systems.

Adrienne Lee Atterberry investigates how elite migrant parents return from the U.S. to major cities in India to nurture their children with the skills and mindset deemed necessary for future global competition. Using the concept of “transnational concerted cultivation,” she describes the class-specific, racialized parenting logic practiced by this group. Besides taking advantage of high-quality English-medium private education and extended families’ support, this parenting involves two additional dimensions. First, children are socialized to become hardworking, high-achieving, and empathetic adults by being exposed to the “not so good” life of those disadvantaged groups visible in their lives, such as hired servants in the household. Moreover, there is a strong emphasis on developing a deep connection to children’s ethnic identity. Here we see a type of intensive parenting that carefully extracts and assembles “valuable” resources from both home and host societies to cultivate future “global talents.”

In a diaspora setting, Asuncion Fresnoza-Flot studies the forenaming of children in Filipino-Belgian families in Belgium. She reveals two naming practices: 1) individualization through single forenames; and 2) reinforcement of collective affiliation through compound forenames. Such a complex process of naming reflects the power dynamics not only within the parental couple but also within the wider social relations. It also reflects the value of children in mixed-heritage families as social bridges linking generations and non-biological relationships, the then and now, and the here and there. 

Similarly, Jessica Schwittek and colleagues explore intergenerational relations and negotiations in Viet-German families, revealing the emergence of a new, hybrid pattern of intergenerational solidarity, which they term “individualized interdependence.” This pattern is co-constructed by both generations in complicated ways throughout the life course, and results from interweaving social factors that influence the dynamics between their migrant families and host society, including the context and conditions of the parents’ migration, family economic and social capital, relations within the local ethnic community, and transnational ties and obligations. 

The Young Generation as Burden-bearers

With economic neoliberalization in much of the region in recent decades and the welfare state a near or distant reality, many Asian societies grapple with steep inequality along social class lines, gender lines, and other traditional fault lines (e.g. the caste system in India). As policy and public debates intensify in some societies, exemplified by the award-winning movie “Parasite” that dramatized class inequality in South Korea, how children in the bottom rungs of society experience and negotiate inequality remain little known. 

In China, 100 million rural children are directly impacted by the labor migration of their parents, and their life histories often involve episodes of shifting between being “left behind” in resource-strapped rural communities and brought along to cities where they are treated as second-class citizens. How do they cope with such structural conundrums? In a chapter, I unpack what “mobility” means for children in these families, complicating the dominant children-as-victims discourses in mainstream media and public policy.

First, despite the emotional challenges, children perceive their parents’ out-migration more as a “mobility imperative” to escape away from poverty-stricken villages than as abandonment of parental responsibilities. Second, the young people are aware that their families’ seemingly “unstable” life serves a long-term strategy of achieving social mobility via their education. This is seen as a culturally legitimate route for the subaltern class to achieve recognition and respect in a society deeply rooted in the ideology of education-based meritocracy, with minimal space for class politics or discourse. Last, children actively contribute to their families’ daily life amid mobilities by sharing care and household responsibilities, and by managing time and distances to sustain intergenerational exchanges and maintain family togetherness. 

Refugee children, bearing the brunt of legal jeopardies and socioeconomic stresses, often compounded with a history fleeing conflict and persecution, need to negotiate multiple challenges to meet their family responsibilities. Asma Khalid studies a group of young Afghan refugees in Pakistan to understand what their childhood is like. Many face discrimination and exclusion from the mainstream society due to their refugee status and poverty. For their families, however, they are more than dependents; instead, they are an immediate workforce to alleviate their families from poverty and their parents’ future old age support. To fulfill these filial responsibilities, many young people participate early in manual labor and street vending, beyond the typical experience of a childhood centered around education in many regions worldwide.

Alternative Scenarios 

Some studies also illuminate the role of the young generation as possible agents for change, challenging the status quo and reconfiguring social, political, and familial orders in their societies. 

Giuseppe Bolotta draws on data gathered from 14 years of ethnographic research involving young individuals in Thailand, with a particular focus on the recent youth movement, and examines the intertwined political dynamics of childhood and parenthood as forms of governance. He finds that Thai youth activists rework dominant tropes (“childhood” versus “parenthood”) that sustain “age-patriarchy” in the Buddhist kingdom. Rather, they use “engaged siblinghood” to reframe a more democratic and equal generational order, engaging creatively with transnational discourses such as “democracy” and “children’s rights,” and popular culture such as K-pop icons, Japanese manga, and Buddhist astrology. As such, Thai youth activism suggests a cultural reconfiguration of the paternal myth in Thailand, as younger generations gain greater political influence.

In the Philippines, a major sending country of transnational service workers, Elizer Jay de los Reyes examines how the young generation redefines “good life.” In particular, they reject the “mobility imperative” – the societal expectation for individuals to pursue geographical and socioeconomic mobility as a means of personal and professional advancement – a narrative often recounted by their migrant parents and preceding generations. Instead, they embrace alternative imaginaries: aspiring to become employees or entrepreneurs in their own villages and lead a life with their own families. In other words, the “good life” is a life rooted in home communities and family togetherness. 


These studies highlight the remarkable diversity and resilience of Asia’s youth, while also underscoring the impact of structural inequalities on their lives, which differ significantly from the protected, carefree childhoods often seen in the Global North. It is evident that these young individuals play crucial roles in sustaining the daily functioning of their families and societies. To harness the tremendous potential of the younger generation for Asia’s future prosperity, greater investment in children’s and youth’s welfare by national governments and international organizations is essential.

Guest Author

Xiaorong Gu

Xiaorong Gu is currently a lecturer in childhood studies at the University of Suffolk (UK). She is a sociologist of children and youths, writing about their migration and mobilities, education, socio-emotions, relations, transition to adulthood and their social positioning vis-à-vis family, educational institutions, and the nation-state. Her area focus is on contemporary China (with its domestic and global engagements), from a comparative-Asia perspective.