In China each generation born to a new decade is said to have defining characteristics.
Those born in the Sixties are said to be conservative and patriotic; those in the Seventies are ‘conflicted’, having come into the world at time of great political change. People born in the Eighties are selfish and materialistic – as the first generation to grow up under the One-Child Policy and Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms.
But the Nineties generation are now worried that their defining feature will be something much more mundane: hair loss.
Since September the term “1990s bald wave” has taken off on social media as young people, many still at university, fret that they are losing their hair.
A recent study at Beijing’s Tsinghua University found that 60% of students felt their hair was thinning and 40% thought their hair lines had receded.
Around 25% said they thought they had a serious problem, with more men than women complaining of dramatic hair loss.
Stress, ‘hard’ water, a lack of exercise or sleep and poor nutrition were all listed as possible culprits.
Few believed the hair loss is genetic because many said their parents still have lustrous locks.
Is there any truth to the notion that baldness is coming early to younger Chinese? Or could it be more that the individualistic, looks-obsessed Nineties generation are being neurotic?
Generally speaking, baldness is much less common in China than it is in the West. Successive studies have shown that about 20% of Chinese men suffer irreversible hair loss, while that number is closer to 40-50% in European countries.
Furthermore, the onset of baldness is generally later in life for Asians, a 2012 study by the Annals of Dermatology concluded.
Part of the reason that commentators think this might be changing in China comes from a recent piece of market research by Alibaba, which reports that people in their twenties are spending almost as much on anti-hair loss products as those in the 30 to 40 age group.
“The post-1990 generation is catching up with the post-1980 generation – they are the main force for hair loss products,” it said.
Vibrating hair brushes, herbal remedies, Minoxidil and adhesive hair pieces are some of the solutions that Alibaba’s Taobao offers.
The Chinese first started getting serious about preventing hair loss in the mid-1980s when Zhao Zhangguang, the son of a herbalist, created “101”, an anti-baldness tonic, that took Asian consumers by storm.
By 1989 Zhao was a multimillionaire but his product spawned dozens of fakes produced by people claiming to be his friend or relative.
Then as now, baldness was seen as something of a weakness. People with thinning hair find it harder to find partners and say it can sometimes count against them in job interviews.
Yet even as the young grow more self-conscious of their appearance the old seem to have grown more confident about their looks.
When China’s ruling Communist Party published the official portraits of its new 25-member Politburo last month seven were obviously grey or balding.
Under previous leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, most of the powerbrokers on the Politburo dyed their hair jet black, despite generally being over 60.
If they were sparse on top, China’s political elite would grow their hair long on one side and comb it over – a style that a few of its members still sport.
Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian, told the South China Morning Post that this new generation of leaders is more assured of its position – perhaps because, like President Xi Jinping, they have a strong political lineage.
“The elder leaders were anxious about their age,” he said “The generation of princelings is more confident of their power. They may care less about appearance.”
“Xi wants to build a different image, one that appears more casual and closer to the people,” Wu also added.
Although Xi’s hair is black in his official portrait, he sometimes appears in public with strands of grey. For example, in 2016 a National People Congress delegate said she noticed the president had more white hairs than before. But she took it as further evidence that he was working hard.
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