A restless Gen Z is reshaping the Chinese Dream

Joy in Chengdu
Image caption,Joy Zhang is among millions of Chinese graduates, fresh out of university, who are struggling to find jobs

By Laura Bicker

China Correspondent, BBC News

“I’ve had one, two, three, four… five jobs in the last few months,” says Joy Zhang, a 23-year-old graduate.

She counts them on her fingers as she walks through a line of stalls at a local food market in Chengdu, a city in south-west China’s Sichuan province.

“The fact is there are lots of jobs, the problem is whether you are willing to lower your expectations,” she adds, before turning to negotiate a price for snow pea shoots.

Joy’s experience is not unusual in today’s China, where there are more graduates than employers that need them. Out of her class of 32, only around a third have found full-time jobs since graduating in the summer.

More than one in five people between the ages of 16 and 24 are jobless in China, according to official data from August 2023. The government has not released youth unemployment figures since then.

With China’s boom years behind them, millions of young people are confronting a future they did not prepare for – and how they respond will shape the fate of the world’s second-largest economy.

A revolution is taking place in the minds of the country’s Generation Z, according to anthropologist Xiang Biao, an Oxford University professor who spends a lot of time speaking to young people in China.

“The entire life of young people has been shaped by the idea that if you study hard then at the end of your hard work there will be a job and a highly-paid, decent life waiting for you. And now they find out that this promise is no longer working.”

Opportunities have shrunk in a slowing, highly-indebted economy that was hit hard by sudden and total Covid lockdowns. And under Beijing’s unyielding grip, China is now an uncertain place to do business for both hungry entrepreneurs and foreign investors.

Old dreams and new

That was evident at a recent jobs fair in Beijing. Smooth-talking recruiters were mostly offering low-skilled jobs, such as assistants to sell insurance or medical equipment.

“I think the difficulties are just temporary. People with real capabilities will find jobs,” insisted a 25-year-old masters graduate who along with his partner had just moved back from Germany. “The world’s future is in China,” he said.

Recent graduate Tianyu, who studied software engineering, seemed less sure of that. He said that although his skills were “hotly sought after”, there were too many graduates with a similar resume. “So it’s not easy to find a job.”

A man and a woman talking at a job fair in Beijing
Image caption,Low-paying jobs dominated a recent jobs fair in Beijing, disappointing many graduates

Some of his friends are aiming for a government career given the glum prospects in the private sector. A record three million-plus Chinese sat for the civil service exam in November.

But Tianyu says: “Many are looking for jobs. Not many found jobs.” And those that did get lucky are working in unrelated fields.

That’s what Joy did too – undeterred, she took the jobs she could find. She begged a tour company to take her on as a guide for the panda park in Chengdu over the summer, she sold hot drinks and she interned at a kindergarten.

“These jobs don’t have good prospects for your future,” Joy says. “They offer low salaries and you are easily replaceable. That’s why most people would rather stay at home.”

She has now accepted a position selling educational material. It’s not her dream job, but she sees it as a way of gaining experience.

Her parents, however, are worried. Joy comes from a small village in the hills, some 400km (248 miles) away. She is the first in her family to make it to university. Her father was so proud he held a banquet in her honour with more than 30 tables of guests.

“My parents expect me to have a better life and better job and income than their generation as I graduated from college,” she says.

“They expect that after they supported my education, I could at least have a job… [but] I will insist on going down my own path at my own pace.”

She stops to buy some hotcakes filled https://bagaimanacaraya.com with thick brown sugarcane while pointing out a butcher making spicy Sichuan sausage. It’s delicious but “too fatty” for her, she giggles.

A couple walking down a street in Chengdu
Image caption,Joy – the first in her family to go to university – now calls Chengdu home

She’s come to love this vibrant city during her years at university. She wants to go further and one day travel to Australia and learn English.

The job market may be difficult, but Joy believes life for her is still easier than it was for her parents, when China was much poorer and dreams were far more distant.

“I think this generation is lucky and blessed,” she says.

“There is lots of time and a lot of chances for us to achieve our goals. We can think deeper about what we really want. Compared to the last generation, we don’t care that much about earning money. We think more about what we can do to achieve our dreams.”

‘Roll up your sleeves’

This is what Prof Xiang calls a “re-scripting of the Chinese dream”. The pandemic has been one of the catalysts of Gen Z’s new Chinese dream, he says.

“Young people felt a sense of vulnerability… [that] their life could be changed, crashed by powerful forces. It makes them rethink the entire paradigm of how Chinese society is organised and how Chinese collective life is organised.”

Even during China’s strict pandemic lockdowns, young people were encouraged to go to college. And they’ve gone in large numbers – with a record 11.6 million students graduating in 2023 alone.

Their frustration has inspired viral memes, cynical humour and even unconventional choices. Some posted alternative graduation pictures of themselves throwing their dissertations in the bin. The nickname “lying flat” was coined for those opting out of the rat race and finding ways to exist away from the competition of modern life.

Many have stopped searching for work altogether, instead heading home to be a “full-time child”. Some document their life on social media as they earn small sums of money doing chores for their parents or looking after younger people in the family.

The BBC spoke to one young woman who did not want to be identified who had returned home to live with her parents in rural China. She said she had time to read books, talk to her family and she was cherishing a different life to a city career. She added that she knew it was not forever – but said she was content for now.

Examinees do last-minute revision before walking into an exam venue for the 2024 China's national civil servant exam on November 26, 2023 in Beijing,
Image caption,Students line up to sit for the civil service exam in Beijing

“This is not only about a shortage of jobs or opportunities or income, rather there is a collapse of the dream which has pushed them to work so hard,” Prof Xiang says. “That not only brings disappointment, but it also breeds disillusionment.”

Beijing may be worried that this crisis could fester, that social discontent will rise and a disillusioned youth will pose a threat to the Communist Party’s rule.

It has happened before. In 2022, protests against the government’s stringent “zero-Covid” policies sprung up across the country – the most direct challenge to the Party in decades. And in 1989, frustration over unemployment and inflation provided the initial spark for what turned into historic and massive protests in Tiananmen Square.

So far, there is no sign of that.

“The very important reason for this is the transfer of intergenerational wealth,” Prof Xiang says. “The family-based social support system is still there. Their parents benefited from China’s reforms and have sufficient savings and real estate assets. But now the value of that is going down.”

But Beijing is not taking chances. President Xi Jinping has urged young people to “eat bitterness”, a Chinese term for enduring hardship.

The Party has urged graduates to stop thinking they are above manual jobs, asking them to “roll up their sleeves” and take up blue-collar work.

Hope v despair

That’s a temporary solution for 23-year-old sales and marketing graduate Zheng Guling.

She sniggers at her boyfriend who teases her as she lines up her shot at a snooker hall in Qinhuangdao, just a few hours’ drive from Beijing. They met at university. They are both anxious about finding work. Guling is thinking of taking a role dealing with customers at a credit card firm.

“When I went to the job fairs, I found that most companies are only recruiting sales people. There are very few companies and very few suitable positions,” she says.

Guling is one of six children from a small town in southern China. She was mostly taught online for four years. She has never been in a classroom with her classmates. She worries that this has deprived her of much-needed skills.

Guling and her boyfriend
Image caption,Guling wants to start her own shop selling rice noodle rolls

Both Guling and Joy are “rolling up their sleeves” and finding their own way. Of course this is not the case for all, Prof Xiang says. Plenty of young Chinese do feel a deep sense of failure at not being able to get a job.

But he believes that their despair too will spur a shift. He says this is a “very powerful generation” with the potential to change China.

“The Chinese narrative needs to be rewritten. It can no longer be about prosperity, growth and national strength,” he says. “Young people are the driving force for such a re-scripting of the Chinese dream.”

In his New Year’s Eve address, Mr Xi said that China had withstood the “test of winds and rains” and declared his “full confidence in the future”.

But the big question is whether his nationalist Chinese Dream matches that of a disenchanted, restless generation that is not sure of what to expect from their future.

Huddled in a teashop overlooking the frozen sea, Guling’s face lights up as she describes her ultimate dream: She wants to be her own boss.

She hopes to earn enough money to open a breakfast shop in her hometown selling Cantonese rice noodle rolls. “This will offer me more freedom,” she says. “Then I can do what I like instead of just carrying on working for other people.”

As she munches on the tea-shop snacks of mooncakes, chestnuts and dried mango, she explains that she wants more than a provincial life.

“My parents have never left their home province. They run in very small circles. They just want a stable life. But we want to see more things. See the outside world, and think about what we really dream of.”

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