“I’ve had one, two, three, four… five jobs in the last few months,” says Joy Zhang, a 23-year-old.
He counts them on his fingers as he walks along a row of stalls at a local food market in Chengdu, a city in southwest China’s Sichuan province.
“The truth is that there are many jobs, the problem is If you are willing to lower your expectations“he points out, before turning to negotiate the price of some vegetables.
What Joy feels is not unusual in today’s China, where there are more employees than employers who need them. Of the 32 students who completed their studies with her, only a third have found full-time work since graduating in the summer.
One in five people aged 16 to 24 are out of work in China, according to official data from August 2022. The government has not published youth unemployment figures since then.
After the years of economic prosperity, Millions of young people face a future for which they were not preparedand its response will mark the destiny of the world’s second largest economy.
A revolution is underway in the minds of the country’s Generation Z, according to anthropologist Xiang Biao, a professor at Oxford University who spends a lot of time talking to young Chinese.
“The entire life of young people has been marked by the idea that if you study hard, at the end of your hard effort a job and a decent, well-paid life will await you. And now they discover that this promise no longer works.”
Opportunities have been reduced in a slowing and highly indebted economy that was greatly affected by the sudden and total lockdowns due to the pandemic. And under Beijing’s tight control, China is now an uncertain place to do business, both for ambitious entrepreneurs and foreign investors.
Old and new dreams
This was evident at a recent job fair in Beijing. Most recruiters They offered low-skilled jobsas insurance or medical equipment sales assistants.
“I think the difficulties are temporary. People with real abilities will find work,” insisted a 25-year-old young man who, along with his partner, had just returned from Germany. “The future of the world is in China,” he said.
Recent graduate Tianyu, who studied software engineering, seemed less sure of this. He said that, although his skills were “highly sought after,” he had too many professionals with a similar resume. “So it’s not easy to find work.”
Some of his friends aspire to careers in the bureaucracy, given the bleak prospects of the private sector. In November, more than three million Chinese applied for public jobs.
“Many are looking for work. Not many found work,” says Tianyu. And those who were lucky work in areas unrelated to your profession.
That’s what Joy did too: undeterred, she took whatever jobs she could find. She begged a tour company to hire her as a guide to Chengdu’s panda park during the summer, selling hot drinks and interning at a daycare center.
“These jobs don’t have good future prospects,” says Joy. “They offer low salaries and you are easily replaceable. That’s why most people prefer to stay at home.”
Now he has accepted a position selling educational materials. It’s not her dream job, but she sees it as a way to gain experience.
His parents, however, are worried. Joy comes from a small town in the mountains about 400 km away. She is the first in her family to go to university. His father was so proud that he held a banquet in his honor with more than 30 tables of guests.
“My parents expect me to have a better life and a better job and income than their generation, and to graduate from college,” he says.
“They hope that, after having supported my education, I can at least have a job… [pero] I will insist on following my own path at my own pace.”
The young woman stops to buy some filled pastries while pointing out a butcher making spicy Sichuan sausages. They are delicious but “too fatty” for her, she jokes.
During his university years he has fallen in love with this vibrant city. He wants to go further and one day travel to Australia and learn English.
The job market may be tough, but Joy believes her life is still easier than her parents’, when China was much poorer and dreams much more distant.
“I think this generation is lucky and blessed,” he says.
“We have a lot of time and a lot of opportunities to achieve our goals. We can reflect on what we really want. Compared to the previous generation, we don’t care as much about making money. We think more about what we can do to achieve our dreams.”
To roll up your sleeves
This is what Professor Xiang calls a “rewriting of the Chinese dream”. The pandemic has been one of the catalysts for the new Chinese dream of Generation Z, he says.
“Young people had a feeling of vulnerability… [que] his life could change, affected by powerful forces. It makes them rethink the entire paradigm of how Chinese society is organized and how collective Chinese life is organized.”
Even during China’s strict pandemic lockdowns, young people were encouraged to go to university. And they have gone in large numbers: only in 2023 was it expected a record 11.6 million graduate students.
Their frustration has inspired memes, jokes, and even unconventional decisions. Some posted alternative graduation photos of them throwing their theses into the trash can. The nickname “lying down” was coined for those who choose to get off the treadmill and find ways to live away from the competition of modern life.
Many have stopped looking for work and gone home to be “full-time children”. Some document their lives on social media while earning small amounts of money doing chores for their parents or taking care of the youngest members of the family.
The BBC spoke to a young woman who did not want to be identified and who had returned home to live with her parents in rural China. She said she had time to read books and talk to her family, and that she appreciated a life other than a career in the city. She added that she knew it wasn’t forever, but that for now she was happy.
“It is not just a lack of employment, opportunities or income, but rather the collapse of the dream that has driven them to work so hard,” says Professor Xiang. “That not only brings disappointment, but it also breeds disillusionment.”
Beijing may be worried that this crisis will worsen, that social unrest will increase and that disillusioned youth will pose a threat to the Communist Party’s rule.
It’s happened before. In 2022, protests against the government’s strict “zero Covid” policies emerged across the country, the most direct challenge to the Party in decades. And in 1989, Frustration over unemployment and inflation was the initial spark for what became historic and massive protests in Tiananmen Square.
At the moment, there are no signs of this.
“The most important reason is intergenerational wealth transfer,” says Professor Xiang. “The family-based social support system is still there. His parents benefited from Chinese reforms and have sufficient savings and real estate assets. But now its value is going down.”
But Beijing is not taking any chances. President Xi Jinping has urged young people to “eat bitterness”Chinese term for enduring difficulties.
The Communist Party has urged graduates to stop thinking that they are above manual jobs, asking them to “roll up their sleeves” and accept those jobs.
Hope vs. Despair
It’s a temporary solution for Zheng Guling, a 23-year-old sales and marketing graduate.
She laughs out loud at her boyfriend, who makes fun of her while she prepares her shot at a pool hall in Qinhuangdao, a few hours’ drive from Beijing. They met at university. They are both eager to find work. Guling is thinking about working with clients at a credit card company.
“When I went to job fairs, I discovered that Most companies only hire salespeople. There are very few companies and very few suitable positions,” he says.
Guling is one of six children from a small town in southern China. For four years she received online classes. She has never been in a classroom with her classmates. She worries that this has deprived her of much-needed skills.
Both Guling and Joy “roll up their sleeves” and find their own path. Of course, this is not the case for everyone, says Professor Xiang. Many young Chinese feel deeply frustrated because they cannot find work.
But he believes his desperation will also spur change. In his opinion, this is a “very powerful generation” with the potential to change China.
“The Chinese narrative must be rewritten. It can no longer be about prosperity, growth and national strength,” she says. “Young people are the driving force of this rewriting of the Chinese dream.”
In his New Year’s Eve speech, Xi stated 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 coincides with that of a disenchanted and restless generation. who is not sure what to expect from her future.
Huddled in a tea shop overlooking the frigid sea, Guling’s face lights up as she describes her highest dream: she wants to be her own boss.
He hopes to make enough money to open a breakfast business in his hometown, selling Cantonese rice noodle rolls. “This way I will have more freedom,” she says. “This way I can do what I like instead of continuing to work for others.”
While savoring mooncakes, chestnuts and dried mango in the tea shop, he explains that he wants something more than a provincial life.
“My parents have never left their province. They move 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.”
Click to read more stories from BBC News Mundo.
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