Meet Zak Dychtwald
The Orinda native is emerging as a thought leader on the social and economic impact of Chinese millennials.
“We don’t understand them,” Zak Dychtwald (pictured in China) says of Chinese millennials. “But they have a fluency about us.”
Photo by Sixue Dan
On a recent fall day, 28-year-old Zak Dychtwald visited Google’s Mountain View headquarters to share insights into a subject dear to his heart: young people in China.
The Internet behemoth had invited Dychtwald there to speak to 100 of its executives and staffers as part of the company’s Next Billion Users initiative, which focuses on developing technology products for emerging markets. His critically acclaimed 2018 book, Young China: How the Restless Generation Will Change Their Country and the World, is on the initiative’s internal reading list, and Google bought copies to give to its directors of global markets and other team members.
The subject of Dychtwald’s book, China’s 400-million-strong millennial generation (comprising people born in the 1990s), represents a consumer army whose size dwarfs the population of the United States. “They’re redefining nearly every market they touch,” he says. And Dychtwald has carved a niche for himself as an expert on that subject.
Yet the Orinda native did not set out to be an authority on what companies can potentially sell to young people in China. “I was a suburban kid,” Dychtwald says. “I would drive out to Berkeley and go to Top Dog. That was my big adventure.”
His propensity for adventure grew, however, leading him from Miramonte High to Columbia University in New York. After graduation, Dychtwald moved to China out of a desire to expand his horizons, and ended up writing about his four-year immersion there. Also driving him was his interest in the psychology of a huge group of people who’d grown up in a dramatically different setting than he did.
The China Dychtwald discovered among his millennial peer group tended to be open-minded and well informed about the outside world, newly rich beyond their grandparents’ wildest dreams yet often thoughtful about their consumption, proud of the success of China—and saddled with inordinate pressure as a generation of only children who must take care of their much more numerous elders, Dychtwald says.
This vision of Chinese millennials seldom reaches the United States, he notes. “Our media produces stories about China that are about the extraordinary,” says Dychtwald. “You get this contradictory view of China that’s these super-rich, super-poor, Maserati-driving, dog-eating people, who live in ghost towns but also have to be pushed onto subways because of overpopulation.”
As soon as Dychtwald arrived in China, his Chinese acquaintances went out of their way to communicate with him in English—before he had mastered Mandarin—and shared their day-to-day lives. “The people who invited me into their homes are so poorly understood by us,” he says, “and I wanted to help out with that.”
When Dychtwald submitted his book for publication, he started a consultancy and think tank called Young China Group, and has appeared as an expert on a miniseries about Chinese millennials that aired on BBC World News at the end of 2018. In December, he was due to fly back to China to take part in another series for BBC Two.
In effect, Dychtwald has become a cross-cultural ambassador.
“I care about the United States and China enormously,” he says. “If I can help—culture-to-culture, person-to-person—to build bridges, I love that role.”