Chinese youth reject country’s hypercompetitive school and work culture

When Lily, a 27-year-old from central China’s Henan Province, left her hometown for Hong Kong five years ago, she was hopeful for her future. A Big Four accounting firm had offered him a job in its Hong Kong office, located in a posh building in the city’s bustling financial district.

But the daily grind often turned into late nights without overtime pay. It ate into his weekends, leaving little time for sleep, exercise, dating, or hobbies like painting. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit at the same time Lily’s beloved grandmother, who raised her as a child, suffered a stroke. “My Lao Lao [grandma] I wasn’t well, my parents were getting older and I wasn’t happier, just more exhausted,” Lily said.

The turn of events prompted her to resign and return to her hometown in mainland China last August, where she thought the pace of life might be slower than in Hong Kong and the job search easier in because of his English skills and his experience in an international company.

She discovered the opposite. Lily sent out at least 100 resumes over a six-month period, for jobs all over the country, with no results. “I studied so hard for so many years. I came to Hong Kong, which is a dream for many young people, and I worked so hard. So I decided to lay flat and leave it. rot,” she says.

Lily’s sentiments echo those of many young Chinese people. Over the past few years, many have embraced “plateau” (doing the bare minimum to get by), “let it rot” (making the best of a bad situation), and “involution” (become stagnant rather than evolving). These fatalistic movements embody the growing rejection of young people from China’s hard-working education system and culture, in which the rewards for hard work have become increasingly illusory. The number of university graduates in China has increased, but white-collar jobs have not kept pace. Nearly 11 million Chinese students will graduate from college this summer, but many of them may not find jobs.

Today, China faces a ticking time bomb: a generation of disillusioned, jobless young people amid the biggest economic downturn the country has seen in years, caused by the global downturn and COVID shutdowns.

Great educational leap forward

China’s unprecedented development and urbanization spree over the past four decades included plans for a great leap forward in education. China had become a manufacturing powerhouse, but Beijing needed to educate the millions of new urban youths to build a sophisticated workforce and an advanced economy. The government’s annual public spending on education has risen from 1.7% of GDP to around 4% in 2021, or $557 billion.

China may have been too successful in achieving its educational goals. In 1990, China hit half a million university graduates. This summer, a record 10.8 million people will graduate from college, to enter the worst job market in decades. Earlier this month, China’s youth unemployment rate hit a record high of 19%.

China’s labor market has lagged behind the number of graduates the country is currently producing. “There just aren’t enough white-collar jobs for white-collar workers,” said Zak Dychtwald, founder of Young China Group, a research firm focused on Chinese youth and author of Young China: How Restless Generations Will Change Their Country and the WorldTold Fortune. This imbalance allows “employees [to] treat entry-level applicants as if they were disposable,” he says.

Meanwhile, the nation has more manufacturing jobs than it can fill. As China pushes ahead with its plan to become a leader in high-tech manufacturing, it will need 62 million total manufacturing workers by 2025, but will miss 30 million. Young people are fleeing manufacturing work and sectors like traditional autos and energy, said Vivien Zhang, associate director of southern China at recruitment firm Robert Walters. Fortune. Victor, a 25-year-old Master of Commerce student from Guangdong, said, “We didn’t study so hard just to work in a factory like previous generations.

Social contract

The country’s educational gains have come with great sacrifice.

Young Chinese are under intense pressure to succeed in their studies and spend years preparing for the “gaokao”, the country’s notoriously difficult university entrance exam. After finishing college – if they are lucky enough to gain admission – young people graduate in an equally hyper-competitive job market. In recent years, educated young workers who held in-demand jobs at China’s most vaunted tech companies have begun to ‘close the camp’ and reject the ‘996’ work culture – 9am-9pm, six days on seven – that the Chinese Big Tech has married. Pinduoduo, a grocery startup with a market cap of $73 billion, has asked staff in some units to work 300 hours a month, online commentators have claimed; normal business hours total 160 hours per month. The app came under intense scrutiny in 2021 after the deaths of two young employees.

But in recent years, the idea of ​​”giving up fighting tooth and nail” for an increasingly elusive reward has grown in popularity, 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 cityTold Fortune.

China’s youth today simply don’t have the same expectations of being able to climb the socioeconomic ladder, unlike previous generations who came of age during the country’s economic boom, Friedman says. China has reached the “end of the implicit bargain between the state and the youth” that promised improvements in material well-being in return for silence on politics, he says.

Student Victor worries about his life after graduation. “So many of my peers are struggling to find even their first job. Or if they had one, some quit because they were exhausted,” he says. “Chinese society says you can only be successful if you go to a good school, get a high-paying, high-level job, and buy a house. But it seems almost impossible now.

Photo of candidates running out of a university entrance examination site in Changsha, Hunan, China June 9, 2022.
Students celebrate after completing the “gaokao” – China’s notoriously difficult university entrance exam – in Changsha, Hunan, China June 9, 2022.

Chen Sihan—Xinhua via Getty Images

Beijing’s recent zero-COVID policies and its crackdown on private businesses in a bid for “common prosperity” have only exacerbated youth unemployment and disenchantment.

Over the past two years, Chinese authorities have hit industries — from tech to education and real estate — with tough new rules meant to curb private enterprise and maintain “social harmony.” The result? Businesses lost money and cut jobs. Last July, the government banned tutoring companies – a $120 billion industry – from making a profit. China’s largest private education company alone laid off 60,000 employees; an estimate by Beijing Normal University indicates that 3 million related jobs are at risk. The state also ordered video game makers to impose screen time limits on gamers under 18 and halted the release of new games for months. Politics have decimated the industry: 14,000 game companies have shut down and Tencent, China’s largest manufacturer, cut 20% to 30% of the workforce in its games department last month alone.

Millions of small businesses have shuttered as Beijing continues to rigidly pursue its zero COVID strategy through harsh lockdowns and mass testing. As a result, alternative career options for young Chinese have shrunk “significantly”, said Valarie Tan, an analyst at China-EU think tank MERICS. Fortune. Entrepreneurial careers, like starting a cafe or a store, are not viable because of zero-COVID. “It’s going to be a painful adjustment period…for Chinese youth,” Tan said.

The New Chinese Dream

There is no plan to weather the storm brewing in China: a generation of disenchanted, jobless young people accompanied by a fragile and slowing economy.

But Beijing is trying to establish one. In particular, the government is seeking to stifle any dissent ahead of the October Party Congress, the most important meeting on China’s political calendar, where Chinese President Xi Jinping will likely establish his third term. Mentions of lying flat, letting it rot, and involution are heavily censored on Chinese social media. Xi urged “everyone to participate…and avoid lying flat and involuting. [We must] create opportunities for more people to become wealthy.

The authorities encourage young people to move to the countryside, provide loans and tax benefits to university graduates who set up businesses in rural communities, and provide grants to local governments and businesses to “absorb university graduates”. Graduates are increasingly turning to careers in the civil service and jobs in public companies, which are considered stable with reasonable hours. Victor understands, but argues that turning to state-owned enterprises is flat out because government jobs are easy jobs that are often corrupt, inefficient and lack innovation. China also implemented a new vocational training plan last October to increase enrollment in vocational schools and increase the number of technical workers.

Yet China is unlikely to see any quick fixes to entrenched, long-term problems. In the short term, “downward pressure” on youth employment and wages will persist, said Bruce Pang, chief research officer and chief Greater China economist at real estate services firm JLL. Fortune. China’s employment uncertainty is rapidly turning into weaker business confidence and consumer sentiment, so ‘the country’s labor market needs to remain stable to absorb pressure from slower economic growth’ , Pang said. There are “strong expectations” from society that the state must step in and address labor market issues, Friedman says.

Lily, meanwhile, is still hopeful about her future. She has started organic farming and hopes to open a small production and gardening business soon. “Some people say devolve – retreat. But for now, I’m content to live a simple, quiet life and take care of my family.

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