Home / Opinion / Columns /  Beijing has rather little to offer China’s anxious Generation Z
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China’s young people are stressed out. Already rattled by the protracted covid pandemic that has upended life just as the nation’s Gen Z transitions to adulthood, recent college grads are grappling with an increasingly daunting job market. For years, China’s fast-growing economy easily absorbed newly minted degree holders into corporate careers. But government moves to rein in booming sectors including tech and real estate have slowed hiring for those lucrative jobs. Those who do land coveted positions with one of China’s big companies often find themselves working long hours with little job security.

One source of pressure is that China is churning out more college graduates than ever. Last year, close to 10 million students enrolled in undergraduate programmes, up 46% from a decade earlier. In June 2020, the unemployment rate for degree holders ages 20 to 24 was 19.3%, compared with 5.1% in the broader economy, by HSBC data. As worries about their job prospects mount, some 20-somethings are looking at alternatives to career paths in business that many grads pursued in recent years.

In a survey conducted by Aurora Mobile, only 38.5% of the graduating class of 2021 was planning to enter the workforce. Some 18% said they were looking into graduate school, while 26% were studying for China’s gruelling national civil service exam. Competition here is fierce. The number of applicants for the exam has surged to 1.51 million this year from 1.28 million in 2016. More than 5.3 million opted to take provincial civil service exams, up from 3.67 million five years ago. But the number of openings has barely budged, and only a tiny fraction are offered plum public-sector positions. The outlook isn’t much better for those applying for grad schools.

Young women starting their careers face additional pressures rooted in sexism. Most Chinese companies require job seekers to send personal photos with their applications and women sometimes borrow money to pay for face-lifts and other aesthetic procedures. The practice is so common that state-owned stock exchanges in August barred cosmetic surgery loans from being packaged into asset-backed securities.

Alarmed by shrinking opportunities and the money-making obsession of some of their compatriots, some Gen Z Chinese are opting out of high-stress careers entirely. Their rejection of materialism spawned the “lie flat" movement, a now-global meme that embraces the idea of doing as little as possible to get by.

It’s unknown how many educated young people are actually doing that, but the phenomenon has the Chinese government worried that millions of Gen Zers won’t ever become productive members of society. To help ease anxiety among young adults, the government this summer laid out new rules to make scholastic and early career obligations more appealing. It called a halt to the after-school tutoring programmes, viewed by many as stress inducers. It also deemed illegal China’s ‘996’ work culture that presumes tech companies can ask employees to work from 9am to 9pm six days a week.

Last month, in a education-reform attempt, China launched a new track inspired by the German educational system that will funnel students into vocational programmes where time is split between classrooms and on-the-job training. The new approach seems like a logical way to connect young people with jobs while also boosting a high-end manufacturing sector in need of skilled workers. It could be a tough sell. The prevailing wisdom among China’s urban middle-class youth is that even a bachelor’s degree, let alone a vocational diploma, won’t guarantee the desired financial stability.

So far, Beijing’s moves appear to have had little effect. On average, Chinese parents spend about $1,880 per child a year on tutoring classes, or about one-third of per capita disposable income. Some 60% of individuals responding to a recent survey conducted by CLSA said they would continue to spend that amount on education despite China’s private-tuitions ban.

Meanwhile, workers are working the most hours on record. And for every Gen Zer opting to lie flat, many others are so obsessively hard-working that Chinese joke they have been injected with “chicken blood", a medicinal treatment once thought to stimulate energy. As China’s economy evolves along with technology, the country will need more skilled workers to create semiconductors, electric vehicles and other products. A grand plan that emulates the German model is a good start, but Beijing is going to have to do a lot more to remove the social stigma of manufacturing work and lure Generation Z to factories. Perhaps one place to start is with a new mantra. Instead of lying flat, how about learning to build new things?

Shuli Ren is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian markets

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