When 27-year-old Lily, from central China’s Henan province, left her hometown for Hong Kong five years ago, she was full of hope for her future. A Big Four accounting firm had offered her a job in their Hong Kong office, located in an elegant building in the city’s busy financial district.
But everyday life often turned into long nights without overtime pay. It gnawed at their weekends, leaving little time for sleep, exercise, dating, or hobbies like painting. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit at the same time that Lily’s doting grandmother, who raised her as a child, suffered a stroke. “My Lao Lao [grandma] I wasn’t doing well, my parents were getting older and I wasn’t getting any happier, just more tired,” says Lily.
The turn of events prompted her to resign last August and return to her hometown in mainland China, where she thought life was slower than in Hong Kong and finding a job would be easier given her knowledge of English and experience in an international company.
She discovered the opposite. Lily sent out at least 100 resumes for national jobs in six months with no results. “I have studied so hard for so many years. I made it to Hong Kong which is a dream for many young people and worked so hard. So I decided to just lay flat and let it rot,” she says.
Lily’s feelings mirror those of many young Chinese people. In recent years, many of them have hugged each other ‘lying flat’ (do the bare minimum to make ends meet), ‘let it rot’ (making the best of a bad situation) and ‘Involution’ (Rather stagnant than developing). These fatalistic movements embody the growing rejection of China’s education system and work culture, where rewards for hard work have become increasingly illusory. The number of college graduates in China has skyrocketed, but white-collar jobs have not kept up. Nearly 11 million Chinese students will graduate from university this summer, but many of them may not find jobs.
Now China faces a ticking time bomb: a generation of disillusioned and unemployed youth in the midst of the biggest economic downturn the country has seen for years, caused by the global slowdown and COVID lockdowns.
Great educational leap forward
China is unprecedented development and urbanization Spree over the past four decades have included plans for a great educational leap forward. China had become a manufacturing powerhouse, but Beijing needed to train millions of people new young townspeople to build a sophisticated workforce and an advanced economy. The government’s annual public spending on education increased from 1.7% of GDP to around 4% in 2021, or US$557 billion.
China may have been too successful in meeting its educational goals. In 1990, China coined half a million college graduates. This summer, a record 10.8 million will graduate from college – only to enter the worst job market in decades. Earlier this month, China’s youth unemployment rate hit one All-time high of 19%.
China’s job market has fallen behind the number of graduates the country is currently producing. “There just aren’t enough clerical jobs,” Zak Dychtwald, founder of Young China Group, a research firm focused on Chinese youth, and author of Young China: How the restless generation will transform their country and the worldsaid Wealth. This imbalance leaves “employees [to] Treat newcomers like disposable items,” he says.
Meanwhile, the nation more jobs in production than it can fill. How China pursues its plan to become a leader in high-tech manufacturingit will need a total of 62 million manufacturing workers by 2025, but it will be almost 30 million Young people are avoiding manufacturing jobs and sectors like traditional automobiles and energy, said Vivien Zhang, deputy director for southern China at recruitment firm Robert Walters Wealth. Victor, a 25-year-old business management master’s student from Guangdong, said, “We didn’t study as hard just to work in a factory as previous generations did.”
The country’s educational gains have come at great cost.
Chinese youth are under tremendous pressure to succeed academically and spend years preparing for it ‘gaokao’– the country’s notoriously difficult college entrance exam. After graduating from university – if they are lucky enough to get admission – young people enter a similarly competitive job market. In recent years, young, well-educated workers have been working in coveted jobs at China’s most renowned technology companies started ‘lying flat’ and to reject the “996” work culture – 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week – the Chinese big tech engaged. Pinduoduo, a food startup with a market cap of $73 billion, asked employees to work in some units 300 hours a month, online commentators claimed; The standard working time is 160 hours per month. The app underwent a thorough scrutiny in 2021 Death of two young employees.
But in recent years, the idea of ”giving up the fight tooth and nail” has gained traction for an increasingly elusive reward, said Eli Friedman, a Chinese labor expert, associate professor at Cornell University and author of The urbanization of people: development policies, labor markets, and schooling in the Chinese citysaid Wealth.
Chinese youth today simply don’t have the same expectations of climbing the socioeconomic ladder as previous generations who came of age during the country’s economic boom, Friedman says. China has reached the “end of the implicit agreement between the state and young people,” which promised improvements in material wealth in exchange for keeping quiet about politics, he says.
College student Victor worries about his life after he graduates. “So many of my colleagues are struggling even to find their first job. Or when they had one, some quit because they were burned out,” he says. “Chinese society says that you can only be successful if you go to a good school, get a well-paid and respected job and buy a house. But now it seems almost impossible.”
Beijing’s recent zero-COVID policy and crackdown on private companies in a bid for “shared prosperity” only exacerbated youth unemployment and disenchantment.
Over the past two years, Chinese authorities have hit industries – from tech to education to real estate – with tough new rules aimed at curbing and preserving private enterprise ‘Social Harmony.’ The result? Companies lose money and cut jobs. The government banned tutoring firms – a $120 billion sector – from making profits last July. China’s largest private education company alone 60,000 laid off Employee; an estimate by Beijing Normal University says 3 million related jobs are at risk. The state also ordered video game makers to set screen time limits for players under the age of 18 and halted the release of new games for months. Politics decimated the industry: 14,000 gambling companies shut down and Tencent, China’s largest manufacturer, cut 20 to 30% of the workforce alone in its games department for the last month.
million small businesses closed while Beijing continues to rigorously pursue its zero-COVID strategy hard lockdowns and mass testing. As a result, alternative career opportunities for China’s young people have declined “significantly,” said Valarie Tan, an analyst at China-EU think tank MERICS Wealth. Entrepreneurial careers, such as setting up a café or shop, are not feasible because of Zero-COVID. “This will be a time of painful adjustment… for China’s youth,” Tan says.
The New Chinese Dream
There is no blueprint for how to deal with China’s brewing storm: a generation of disaffected and unemployed youth accompanied by a fragile and flagging economy.
But Beijing is trying to establish one. In particular, the government is trying to quell any dissent ahead of October’s party congress – the most important meeting in China’s political calendar, where Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to begin his third term. Mentions of lay flat, let rot and involution are heavily censored on Chinese social media. Xi has pushed “Everyone should join in… and avoid getting stuck and involution. [We must] Creating opportunities for more people to get rich.”
The authorities are encourage young people to move to the countryside, Providing loans and tax benefits to college graduates starting businesses in rural communities, and providing grants to local governments and businesses to “take on college graduates”. Graduates are increasingly turning to careers in public service and jobs in state-owned companies that are considered stable with reasonable working hours. Victor understands this, but argues that because government jobs are easy jobs that are often corrupt, inefficient, and lacking in innovation, moving to state-owned companies is tantamount to a lie. China last October also implemented a new one vocational training plan increase enrollment in vocational schools and increase the number of technical workers.
Still, China is unlikely to see any quick fixes to deep-rooted, long-term problems. In the short term, “downward pressure” on young people’s employment and wages will remain, said Bruce Pang, research director and chief Greater China economist at real estate services company JLL wealth. Uncertainty about jobs in China is quickly turning into weaker business confidence and consumer sentiment, so the “country’s job market needs to remain resilient to absorb the pressure of slower economic growth,” Pang says. There are “strong expectations” from society that the state needs to step in and fix labor market problems, Friedman says.
Meanwhile, Lily is still hopeful about her future. She has started organic farming and hopes to open a small vegetable and garden shop soon. “Some people say involutive – moving backwards. But for now I’m content to live a simple and quiet life and take care of my family.”
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