TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — When she first moved to the Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen after graduating from college, Marguerite Wang imagined she would spend her career working hard in a big city. Instead, she’s living with her parents in her hometown in northeastern China.
A record of more than one in five young Chinese are out of work, their career ambitions at least temporarily derailed by a depressed job market as the economy struggles to regain momentum after its long bout with COVID-19.
Wang, who was laid off from a gaming company in December, is among an estimated 16 million young Chinese who, daunted by the difficulties of finding decent jobs, have moved back home. She asked that her English nickname be used out of concern that speaking to foreign media might hurt her job prospects.
After spending six months unsuccessfully applying for jobs in Shenzhen, the 29-year-old did something she had never imagined doing: she asked to move back home. Now she spends her days watching soap operas and studying Japanese to apply for a master’s program in Japan.
Adult children returning to the nest is by no means unique to China, and many Chinese do live in extended families. But by some measures, young Chinese are enduring the country’s worst job market in generations, and many are coping by taking refuge with their parents.
The urban unemployment rate for the 16-to-24 age group reached a record 21.3% in June. In July, the government stopped publishing age-specific data, prompting speculation the politically sensitive numbers had shot up even higher.
If “full-time adult children” were counted as unemployed, the jobless rate would be more than double the official rate of almost 20 percent in March, Zhang Dandan, a Peking University economics professor, said in an op-ed in the Chinese business magazine Caixin in July.
That would be a more accurate assessment of the unemployment crisis, said Zhang, who declined an interview request from AP. Her article was later removed from one of Peking University’s WeChat accounts, where it had been shared.
ANXIETY, DISAPPOINTMENT AND CONFUSION
The economy grew at a 6.3% pace in April-June compared to the same period a year earlier, when parts of China were under draconian COVID-19 lockdowns. Exports have been sinking as other major economies slow.
China’s overall urban unemployment rate is officially 5.3%, but young people have been disproportionately affected. Over the past two years, Beijing has cracked down on industries such as high tech and education that usually hire young college graduates. That led to mass layoffs and shutdowns in both sectors.
Other fields such as agriculture and construction lack enough workers, but most college graduates want less physically demanding white-collar positions. Research by online recruitment firm Zhilian Zhaopin showed a quarter of this year’s graduates wanted to work in the tech field.
“There are job opportunities, but the job opportunities are low quality,” said Xiang Biao, head of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany. “So for the only child of a family, who received education, who grew up in a so-called time of abundance, it’s very difficult to embrace that kind of job.”
An abundance of good jobs has been a mainstay of the social contract between the ruling party and young Chinese, Xiang said. A shortage of decent jobs undermines the Communist Party’s assertion that the country’s strong economy proves China’s political model is superior to Western democracies.
There’s no evidence of significant political unrest over the unemployment problem, but late last year, protests against the government’s stringent “zero-COVID” policies sprouted across the country in the most direct challenge to the party in over 30 years. An official report in November noted that the growing “anxiety, disappointment and confusion generated by college students” could shake confidence in China’s economic future.
Resorting to the usual Communist Party exhortations to toughen up, in June Chinese President Xi Jinping urged young people to “eat bitterness” – or endure hardship – “to create a better China.” Earlier this year, the Communist Youth League urged college graduates to “roll up their sleeves” and take up blue-collar jobs.
Instead of eating bitterness, Xiang said, “full-time adult children” are taking advantage of the wealth accumulated by their parents to sit out the job drought, rest up and prepare for exams for relatively stable government jobs or for postgraduate studies.
The trend also reflects changing attitudes among parents who typically would push their children to succeed financially and socially but now increasingly value their emotional well-being, especially when they see their them facing practical difficulties, said Mu Zheng, an assistant professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore.
Having acquired a degree of financial security after decades of sustained economic growth, many parents now have the wherewithal to provide more support to their grown children.
That was the case for Gui Xiaoru, who passed up the small-town teaching job she was offered after graduation because she was hoping for a better-paying position in a bigger city.
She instead moved back home to Mianyang, in southwestern China’s Sichuan province, to study for a civil service exam. She cooks dinner for the family and goes grocery shopping. In return, she gets a 2,000 yuan (about $274) monthly allowance that allows her to focus on her studies.
It’s a peaceful lifestyle, though she knows it’s temporary.
“I think this phenomenon is normal,” Gui said, “but we can’t keep this status going forever.”
Many “full-time adult children” are documenting their lives and domestic duties on social media. Some take on clearly defined roles such as cleaning, cooking and running errands for fixed monthly allowances.
Wang Sinian, a 21-year-old from Bole, a city in far western China’s Xinjiang region near its border with Kazakhstan, started working at her parents’ home in April after finishing her studies at a Canadian university. On the social media platform Xiaohongshu, she documented her daily duties – scrubbing the kitchen, mopping floors, ironing clothes and running errands, in exchange for pocket money.
But as is true for many of those who return home, her gig turned out to be temporary. In July, she returned to Canada to pursue a master’s degree.
Marguerite Wang, the former gaming company employee, said she mostly keeps her parents company in return for pocket money.
She’s cherishing the slower pace of life and time for reflection.
“I don’t want to be in the same kind of work situation as before,” she said, “where I didn’t have a private life and all my energy went into my work, but I actually didn’t know what I was so busy for.”
Associated Press reporter Fu Ting in Washington and researcher Wanqing Chen in Beijing contributed to this story.
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