Ahead of what is set to be the most difficult summer to find a job in China – amid an economic slowdown and with record number of young workers entering the market and fighting for fewer jobs – the work-life balance scales appear to be shifting for the nation’s latest crop of Gen Z graduates.
It is an ongoing sea change in China, which somewhat counters Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream” ideology, with the social trend of lying flat in some cases replacing working long hours in the pursuit of money and all the trimmings that hard work can offer.
“There are about 100 graduates from my college this year, but only 10 are planning to get a job right after graduation,” said 22-year-old Sophia Xie, who will complete her studies at a top university in Shenzhen this summer.
Do you have questions about the biggest topics and trends from around the world? Get the answers with SCMP Knowledge, our new platform of curated content with explainers, FAQs, analyses and infographics brought to you by our award-winning team.
“The others are planning to study for a master’s degree abroad or at home, or preparing for the civil service examination, or even just staying at home until they find a job to their liking.
“Many of my peers choose to be voluntarily unemployed, especially in first- and second-tier cities.”
Xie is a member of that Generation Z, those born from around 1995 to 2009, and will join around what is expected to be a record 10.76 million graduates entering the job market in China this year.
But according to online recruitment web platform Zhaopin, the number of openings targeting graduates fell by 4.5 per cent in the first quarter of 2022 compared with the same period last year.
“Although it is said it will be the hardest year for job seeking this year, my schoolmates are able to get an offer with a starting [monthly] salary of between about 6,000 and 10,000 yuan (US$1,500) if they try hard,” Xie added.
“Maybe the job offers will be stagnant in the coming years, but we call ourselves the generation with a low desire for marriage, childbirth and high incomes. This could be a very useful weapon for us to cushion shrinking economic growth in the future and keep it indifferent, compared with [millennials].”
Marriages in China hit a 36-year low of 7.63 million last year, from a peak of 13.47 million in 2013, while births in 2021 dropped by 11.6 per cent to 10.62 million, adding to a pre-existing population crisis.
The jobless rate for those in China aged between 16 and 24 also hit a record 18.2 per cent in April, with the headline figure having also climbed to 6.1 per cent last month – the highest since March 2020.
In stark contrast, in the United States, the pursuit of the American dream is seemingly alive and well.
Across the Pacific, unemployment for the 16 and 24 age group fell from 10.8 per cent in April 2021 to 7.9 last month, while the overall figure of 3.6 per cent was the lowest in two years amid an improving business environment that is recovering from the impact of the coronavirus.
“If I’m single, I could probably work 60 to 70 hour weeks. 70 is quite a few,” said Benjamin Kapelke, a first-year high school student in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Alameda, who has his sights set on working for a property developer.
“I don’t want to say, ‘whatever it takes to get ahead’, but if I need to work a little more when I’m younger ... then I can raise a family younger.”
Kapelke’s “primary incentive” is to live comfortably, and he expects a six-figure annual salary, especially if he remains in the pricey San Francisco area.
Sophia Xie’s twin sister, Susie, will also graduate this year from a university in Zhuhai in Guangdong province and is set to head straight to the UK to major in psychology and human resources.
“Nowadays, living in China basically meets our needs for what a good life is, and there are very diverse choices in occupation, consumption and entertainment, which are as good as or even better than many developed countries,” Susie said.
For Sophia and her friends, a work-life balance is a priority.
“Not having to work overtime on weekends, to have our own social life, to have pets, and especially to emphasise that we don’t think love or marriage is a must, let alone children,” she said.
Sophia, like most of her fellow Gen Z-ers, face less pressure to work to get married and earn enough money to buy a house as most of their parents already own at least one property.
According to a report released in May last year by Citic Securities, the average number of children per household within the Gen Z age bracket was 0.94, down from 2.88 in 1971, meaning they have the potential to receive more support from their parents as they have fewer siblings to compete with.
In much of California, unanswered help-wanted signs decorate the walls and windows of service-sector employers from coffee shops to package delivery services after many lost workers during the coronavirus-driven closures of 2020 and early 2021.
Audrey Choi, a first-year student at Alameda High School in California, intends to run her own technology firm specialising in software or services.
She looks up to late Apple founder Steve Jobs but hopes to work just eight hours a day, delegating extra work as needed.
“Originally, it was just a joke, and then I thought it was cool, and the world is kind of evolving with tech and stuff,” Choi said. “It’s kind of the next thing that we’re adapting to.”
Nixon Wu, 16, a third-year student at another San Francisco Bay Area high school, is angling toward a career that allows for a “digital nomad” working style.
He hopes to avoid doing “mundane work” in the same cubicle every day.
“The closest thing to what I would want right now would probably be photography,” Wu said.
He also anticipates working more than eight hours per day at the start of his career to build a name and make some of his money through “passive” means as well as work. He also eventually expects a six-figure salary as “income sources expand”.
China’s average monthly salary across 38 major cities was 10,014 yuan (US$1,502) in the first quarter of 2022, down by 1 per cent year on year but up by 10.5 per cent from the same period in 2020.
The expected monthly salary with a bachelor’s degree rose by 1.8 per cent from the previous year to 12,033 yuan, according to Zhaopin.
“It will be ... a hard life to afford housing debts with marriage and a birth plan,” Sophia Xie said.
China has set a target of creating more than 11 million new urban jobs this year, having added 12.69 million last year, although Premier Li Keqiang said in March that it would be “preferable” to create 13 million.
Yu Qian, 24, borrowed 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) from her family in 2020 to start her business teaching children to paint in her hometown of Zhumadian, a mid-sized city in the southern Chinese province of Henan.
Yu’s uncles left their rural hometown in the early 2000s to work in coastal cities, with the dream of earning enough money to support their parents, buy property and get married to raise children in the cities.
“I have no plan to live in a first-tier city, my hometown is quite urbanised now, and the apps I use are the same as those of my peers in the first-tier cities, and the high-speed train is also very convenient to go anywhere,” Yu said.
“The [coronavirus] epidemic has affected my studio, which had to shut down for almost a month last month, but I feel OK and not stressed as long as I keep my plan to have only one child in future.”
The Gen Z children of China’s legion of migrant workers grew up in cities, not in rural areas, and have a higher level of education, meaning they are wanted by Chinese factories but they prefer the service industry in the cities with better-paying jobs.
“If getting married, most of the young people in smaller cities will have at least a property, a car, cash of around 200,000 yuan, and usually the parents will cover most of the expenses” Yu added.
The less pressure faced by China’s Gen Z generation, compared to their Gen Y counterparts, has allowed them to pursue non-traditional employment.
“Maybe the economic impact of the Covid epidemic will come to us soon. But I enjoy living with my parents and pet cat, and my parents are also very OK with my dream of trying to be a fitness influencer,” said 19-year-old Wang Ang from Guangzhou, who works part-time.
In 2020, China expanded the definition of “employed” to cover new graduates that open online shops, play competitive online games or have blogs, as part of an effort to boost the employment rate amid the coronavirus pandemic.
According to the education ministry, new graduates who open e-commerce websites will be grouped as “employed” as long as they can provide a link to the online shop and its registration information.
Graduates who take freelance work, including in online marketing, managing public accounts on instant messaging platform WeChat, and playing esports will be classified under “flexible employment”, which is counted in the overall employment figure.
“They have more sense of security and confidence in their job and income, no longer bearing the pressure of the whole family’s livelihood, and can focus on their own interests,” said Annie Wang, who runs a influencer marketing and branded content solution company that represents hundreds of opinion leaders and influencers.
“For jobs, Chinese Gen Z are looking for a work and life balance. There are a big number of Gen Z-ers becoming influencers, by documenting their own lives – a good life – and sharing it with other peers.”
More from South China Morning Post:
- China has 33 ways to get economy back on track, but critics say ‘adjusting zero-Covid strategy is key’
- China’s zero-Covid policy questioned as expert says ‘stabilising the economy will protect lives’
- As China strikes positive tone on economy, experts play down short-term impact of policy support
- With China firmly on a zero-Covid trajectory, concerns are turning to ‘growth recession’ risks
- China population: Jiangsu becomes first province to subsidise maternity leave for second, third child