Living in the Shadow: Vietnamese Millennials’ Dilemma
It is 10 a.m. in the morning when Lam decided to show up at work. The working hour was supposed to start at 7.30 am, but Lam did not feel the need to be on time. When he finally showed up at work, Lam spent most of his time surfing on the Internet, watching movies or chatting with his friends. For any task that he was assigned, he deliberately slowed his performance, taking more time to complete than he really needed. As a public servant working for the city government, Lam has held his job for nearly 5 years, making roughly $200 per month, about the average national GDP per capita income.
His manager was frustrated and tried to manage his performance first by intimidating him, and then by incentivizing him to work harder. None of the methods really worked. Coming from a wealthy family which owns a retail store, a family-run hotel, an accounting firm, and several properties for rent, money is not really a big deal for Lam – he already had all what one might need. Despite an excellent educational background, graduating from one of the top universities in Japan with a Bachelors’ degree in Marketing, Lam has no desire to outperform his co-workers, who are many years his senior and hold the job for much longer than him, at least for the time being. “I have been doing this simple and mindless job for so long that I become really good at it. For example, it used to take me several days to design my agency’s newsletters; now, it only takes several hours. Yet, I also do not want to turn in my work earlier. I use that free remaining time to pursue my own leisure,” said Lam.
Successors of Economic Boom
Lam was born in 1988, so he is part of Vietnam’s millennial generation, which is estimated to account for almost one-fourth of Vietnam’s 95-million population. In 1986, Vietnamese government launched a reform package called Doi moi which completely abandoned the central planning economy, paving the way for the country to transition to a market-oriented economy. From 1986 onwards, Vietnam experienced a sustained period of high economic growth, lifting millions of people out of poverty, completely transforming the country’s landscape, and becoming a lower middle-income country. In 2005, it officially became a member of the World Trade Organization, and since then, it has entered into various free trade agreements with many countries, even with the former archenemies like China or the United States. As Vietnam’s economy prospers and opportunities to make money are omnipresent, a sense of political and economic security is well established. Many Millennials are born in the good economic time, witnessing their parents to acquire wealth and modern amenities, and are largely unaware of their difficult childhood or their parents’ struggling past. “My grandparents often talked about how hungry they were decades ago, and how people died of starvation. Now I have to go on various diets and do exercises to lose weight,” said Hung, a PhD candidate at a university in Singapore, who is also a public servant. For younger members of the millennial generation, the time of hardship was even more distant and unthinkable.
A Generation of Identity Crisis
Dao is a lecturer at a university, specializing in economics and commerce. She graduated from a high-ranking university in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and went on to earn a Masters’ degree in Europe. She was very popular among her students; however, she always sensed something was missing in her life. “I am a university lecturer, so I am supposed to know everything and be a role model for my students. Nonetheless, I think that I have the imposter syndrome, that I do not have the right credentials or experience for my job. I get everything so easily that I wonder if I really deserve my students’ respect,” Dao said. Many millennials have a lingering feeling of insecurity and understatement.
Similarly, May also had the same problem trying to find her place in Vietnam’s fast-changing, but still in essence a Confucian society. Confucianism, which originated from China – Vietnam’s neighbor and long-term rival, – is a set of social and ethical beliefs that emphasize filial piety, hierarchy, conformity, and male-dominance. Growing up in a strictly traditional Vietnamese family, May noticed the role-sharing system which made all the burden of housework fall on her mother, and the favor and perceived superiority of her brother over her. “After studying 4 years in Australia and seeing how equal males and females are in Australia, I cannot bear the Vietnamese culture anymore. I tried to date Vietnamese guys but even though they were around my age and received Western education, they still have deep-seated patriarchal attitude and try to make me feel inferior”. However, May’s decision to date foreigners was met with resentment and opposition from her family. For some time, she suffered from severe depression, and her relationship with her family was greatly strained. After working in Vietnam for 3 years upon graduation, May decided to go to Europe for a Masters’ degree. “I felt more like myself living abroad. However, my major is economic development. Since Europe is a very developed place, there is not a lot for me to do. I am considering to find jobs in an ASEAN country such as Cambodia or Laos, so I can be closer to home but still have the necessary freedom to be who I truly am,” said May.
Sharing May’s sentiments of parents’ intrusion and control over their personal life, Hung said that he had to break up with his previous girlfriend because his parents disapproved of her. In addition, to comply with his father’s wish, he had to stick to his current job despite how much he hated it. “My father has been a loyal public servant for all his life, so he wants me to continue his legacy. Also, my family has enough wealth to support me for the rest of my life, so my parents only need me to have a stable job to keep me out of trouble,” said Hung. He fought with his parents many times over the issues but always succumbed to their demand. “They sacrificed a lot to give me a better life, so I do not want to disappoint or infuriate them. Besides, my life is quite comfortable; the roads are all smooth and secured. Nevertheless I feel saddened whenever I think of my passions, wasted skills, and opportunity costs. I feel like I am living someone else’s life,” said Hung.
After 1975, Vietnam initiated the family planning program which allowed each couple to have a maximum of two children. Therefore, naturally, most Millennials are the only child, or have at most 1 sibling. As GDP per capita grew from less than $250 per year in 1986 to more than $2,185 in 2016, and the birth rate fell from 4.43%/year to 1.96%/year over the same period, Millennials enjoy the fruits of their parents’ hard labor, but also endure their overprotection, and their high expectations. According to a research by Herdindha and Riyanto (2012), parental pressure can cause children to fear the reality and the future, and become constantly anxious. Even when they are successful, they feel dissatisfied and restless. “My parents even dictated what they wanted me to study or who I should date. Regardless of my feelings towards their domination, I achieve all their goals, but I always feel they want even more from me,” said Hung.
Regarding Lam, he fought off his parental pressure by retreating to his own world and became disinterested in everything. He even rebelled by refusing to meet with any of his parents’ dating prospects. “After years of misery, I now turn a deaf ear to my mother’s complaints and criticisms. Maybe one day, I will change my mind, leave this job and take over my parents’ business as they wish. However, for now, I do as I am pleased, trying to live one day at a time,” said Lam. Nonetheless, Lam and Hung faced the paradox of choosing between following the easy path their parents lay out for them or revolting to pursue their dreams. Their parents’ success was so enormous that they are probably never able to escape their shadow. Indeed, there is a joke among Vietnamese that it is easier for poor people to break out of poverty than for well-to-do people to break out of complacency and comfort.
Plenty of Distractions
If Vietnamese millennias ever feel discontented and bitter, thanks to Vietnam’s global integration and economic advance, there are plenty of distractions for them to occupy their time and their mind. With the abundance of electronic devices, computers, smart phones, tablets and Internet, Vietnamese young people are busy with their online life, playing video games, online shopping, updating their Facebook, Twitter, and Zalo blogs, or talking to their friends via Viber, Zalo, and Messenger. In fact, Vietnam boasted 58 million Facebook users and 6.7 million Twitter users. According to a study by Gracia Monica, there were at least 20 millions gamers in Vietnam on the mobile platforms alone. The game market in Vietnam was also the fastest growing market among ASEAN countries with a rate of 87.7%, and the market value was estimated at $161.6 million in 2017.
In addition to the Internet, gathering and drinking alcoholic beverages after work or even over lunch is also very common among Vietnamese. According to a report by Euromonitor, young adults in their 20s or early 30s, or Millennials, are driving up sales in beer industry. In 2016, Vietnam ranked third in Asia in beer consumption, only after Japan and China, and it was estimated that beer consumption would jump 65% over the period from 2011 – 2021. “My friends and I drank almost every day for all the reasons. After a long torturing working day and a heavy dose of alcohol, I just go home and sleep, and the whole cycle repeats the next day,” said Hung.
Travelling is also another obsession among young Vietnamese people in light of a booming tourism industry in Vietnam. Moreover, they become more creative with their travelling arrangements and options, from going on traditional tours to hitch-hiking, backpacking or trekking. In addition to popular tourist spots, Vietnamese youths are eager to explore less-travelled corners and foreign exotic destinations. During May’s three years working in Vietnam after returning from Australia, she travelled extensively, more than she had ever done in her entire life. In addition to touring many cities in Vietnam, she travelled by herself for 2 weeks to Cambodia, then with her friend for 2 weeks to Thailand. Sometimes she just hopped on her motorbike and went on a completely spontaneous trip to some nearby resorts, neighboring provinces or mountainous areas over the weekend. “Travelling gives me something to look forward to and keeps me busy. I also learn many life lessons and make many meaningful acquaintances along the way. More importantly, it gives me the freedom and adventure that I desperately need considering my suffocating work environment and my parents’ over-protection. It is my way of rebellion and survival,” said May.
Fighting for Their Own Way
Despite facing with unconventional challenges, familial and societal pressure, Vietnamese millennials work hard for their own way of life and exert the values of their generation. After divorcing her husband, an act that outraged her parents and made her vulnerable to workplace and social judgment, Dao decided to move out of her parents’ house to start a new life. She volunteered to lead the university’s Communist Youth Union to carry out various charitable projects in economically-disadvantaged areas and team-building activities. Furthermore, she together with her friends opened a restaurant selling Western food such as pizzas, pastas, etc. She offered job opportunities for her students to gain knowledge and first-hand experience with business management and customer services. She said,” I want to enrich my life experience; I want to fully live, research, study, and grow. I feel more confident now when teaching the students because I myself experiment the theories in practice, and learn through my own trials and errors.”
Fighting against the rigid and obsolete system of work-for-life and tenured positions in Vietnam’s remnant central-planning system, many Vietnamese millennials opt to work as freelancers or start their own businesses. The nascent start-up eco-system has been thriving in Vietnam for the past few years. According to Dezan Shira & Associates, in 2018, Vietnam had around 3,000 start-ups spreading in all sectors, with many companies receiving millions in funding from venture capitals. The startup deal value in 2017 was $291 million. Some notable deals included Sea Group investing $64 million in Foody or JD.com pouring $54 million in Tiki. In March 2018, there were 5 Vietnamese millennial start-up founders featured in “30 Under 30 Asia” list, highlighting the success of Vietnamese start-up companies, especially tech-based service providers.
In terms of freelancing, the website freelancerviet.vn has seen its members soar from 365 in 2010 to nearly 23,000 in just 4 years. More than 60% of the members were born from 1990 to 1996. Most millennials turn to freelancing for personal freedom, creativity, work-life balance and autonomy, typical characteristics of the generation.
For other Vietnamese millennials, slowly but surely, they find their way to chase their dreams and realize their full potentials. For Hung, besides the tedious government job that he was obliged to keep, he also worked for a construction company on a project-based contract. He believed this job better reflected his ability, gave him more income, and he could make a career out of it once he had the opportunities.
In sum, under the seemingly easy life, Vietnamese millennials face tremendous obstacles in overcoming the shadow of their parents’ generation and instilling their values in the existing system. However, equipped with technology, education, and financial security, the generation has the capacity to lift Vietnamese economy forwards in the near future.