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China’s Youth Employment Struggles and Societal Trends in 2023

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After graduating from university in 2020, Gao Yu faced challenges securing stable office work in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province in southern China.

Reluctant to abandon her aspirations for a white-collar job in a big city, Gao Yu, like many rural Chinese youth, returned to rural Yunnan to support her family’s online fresh food business. She requested anonymity for this interview due to fear of reprisal from Chinese authorities.

“I was reluctant to go back at first,” she told VOA. “I didn’t really want to do it [selling agricultural products online] because I have never been exposed to it, and I am actually not very interested in this area.”

In Yunnan, her family had ventured into selling agricultural products grown in their fields online. As the only college graduate in her extended family, Gao Yu became the linchpin of the online store, taking on various responsibilities, from copywriting to promotional activities.

Go to the mountains, go to the countryside

In recent years, the Chinese government has been encouraging young people to work in rural areas, drawing parallels to a similar initiative during the 1960s Cultural Revolution.

In April, Guangdong province introduced an action plan outlining the mobilization of 100,000 young individuals to assist in rural development by the end of 2025.

However, according to Benn Steil, senior fellow and director of international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank, Chinese college graduates will likely not be satisfied with returning to their hometowns in small cities or rural areas.

“Because they want the same experience as their parents’ generation, opportunities to move into the middle class and have the ability to build and support their families,” Steil told VOA.

Now, facing declining profits from her online business while still harboring aspirations to pursue her dream life, Gao Yu contemplates returning to Guangzhou for job opportunities.

However, last Friday’s official data on China’s national urban unemployment rate, reported at 5% in November, the lowest since December 2021, may not entirely align with her hopes to move to an urban area for employment.

Trend of ‘slowly employed’ full-time children

Amid job scarcity in China, some individuals now embrace the concept of “lying flat,” becoming “full-time children” and joining the ranks of the “slowly employed.”

“Lying flat” denotes a laid-back lifestyle that rejects intense competition and societal expectations. “Full-time children” refers to adult children living with their parents, choosing to avoid full-time work. The term “slowly employed” is also emerging in China, describing graduates who have not yet entered the job market.

China’s slowing economy has left millions of young people fiercely competing for an ever-slimming raft of jobs and facing an increasingly uncertain future. In this photo taken Aug. 26, 2022, a woman is using her phone during a job fair in Beijing.

In July, Peking University’s professor Zhang Dandan highlighted potential underestimation of China’s youth unemployment in an article published by Caixin magazine, as many opt to wait or withdraw from the labor market in unfavorable conditions by joining the “slowly employed.”

Jacey, who lives with his parents in Beijing, represents this trend, having lived off savings and parental support after failed attempts in pursuing further education abroad. Although considering job hunting, he feels “out of touch with society.”

“I often find people like me who ‘don’t go to work or can’t find jobs’ on Weibo and other online platforms,” he told VOA.

After a year of post-college work, Jacey saved up for a language school in Japan. Despite two years of preparation and repeated exam failures, he returned to Beijing this February. Jacey, part of the “slowly employed” trend, said, “if I see a job posting in a restaurant, I won’t go because I’m lazy.”

Acknowledging his current disconnection from society, he resists job hunting. Although he said that he does not like Beijing, he does not plan to find a job in other cities. “After all, I don’t have to pay rent at home.”

A recent survey indicates a growing “slowly employed” population in China. In September, a survey conducted by China Youth Daily, with 2,009 respondents, revealed that 72.9% of them have friends or relatives who are college graduates experiencing “slow employment.”

Civil servant and postgraduate recruitment increase

In October, a China News Service report revealed plans for 2024 national civil servant recruitment: a 6.7% increase, hiring 39,600 people, up from 24,100 in 2020. National examination admissions rose over 60%, provincial civil service exam enrollment expanded by 17%, and universities increased postgraduate enrollment by 5.61% for 2024, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Steil contends that the government’s focus on civil servant and graduate student recruitment addresses symptoms, not the root cause of China’s high youth unemployment.

He adds, “this could create considerable political unrest within China and would certainly damage social cohesion.”

Exile because of unemployment

Fu Zijin, a 2019 Bozhou University graduate in primary school English education, highlights job challenges due to the Chinese government’s 2021 crackdown on the education and training industry. Two 2020 classmates remain jobless, navigating civil service and teacher preparation exams amid fierce competition.

Observing trends in her hometown, Fu notes, “some start businesses, and some just stay at home, becoming ‘full-time children.'”

After losing her job as an English teacher during the epidemic, Fu persevered through teacher preparation exams and local training classes.

In October 2020, she secured a public primary school teaching position but faced ideological challenges, leading her to leave teaching in September 2022. Opting for a new path, she and her boyfriend worked in Singapore and later chose to “illegally” cross the U.S. border. Currently, she works at a Los Angeles restaurant.

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