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China's millennial and Gen Z workers are having to lower their economic expectations

Jackie Lay /NPR

China's youth came of age during a time of huge economic growth. But now, a sense of gloom is hanging around them as the country's economy plateaus.

China's slower-than-usual economic growth has put pressure on the country's millennials and Generation Z. Reared by a generation of Chinese who made their wealth during nearly four uninterrupted decades of explosive economic growth, they face much lower expectations for economic dynamism and their own prospects going forward.

"China's golden years, the two decades or so after our country's reform and opening-up policies, are over. There's nothing I can do about this. I can only accept it," says 20-year-old Jeffrey An, who is starting a master's degree.

An saw his parents rise from rural poverty to urban wealth, in part by investing in a fast-growing property market: one of the reasons why China grew so quickly in the last four decades.

But for himself, he sees no similar opportunities today. Some of the country's biggest property developers have defaulted and are facing bankruptcy; others have been hobbled by policies that make it harder for them to borrow money.

"I probably will not buy any property for now, because I feel the property market will collapse and that collapse will spread to other cities in the future," An says.

His disillusionment is in contrast to the optimism of China's previous generations.

"The people who are born in the [19]70s and '80s, they feel the future is so bright: All you need is just work hard and get to the next level," says Liqian Ren, a research director at global asset manager WisdomTree.

She would know because she was part of that optimistic generation. She got to attend university, move into a big city and, later, study and live abroad. Those entering the job market now face much dimmer prospects.

"I think for the younger generation, the wage growth has really significantly slowed down," she says. The average expected salary for young workers graduating from college in 2023 dropped to 8,033 yuan (about $1,160), about $15 lower than the year before.

"The expectation has definitely changed for the next generation," says Ren.

Students attend a job fair for graduates at Zhengzhou University on September 22, 2023 in Zhengzhou, Henan Province of China.
/ VCG via Getty Images
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VCG via Getty Images
Students attend a job fair for graduates at Zhengzhou University on September 22, 2023 in Zhengzhou, Henan Province of China.

More young residents are completing university and graduate degrees, but job creation is slowing down. Meanwhile, small and medium-size businesses have been struggling to bounce back after three years of punishing COVID-19 restrictions, which werelargely lifted in December 2022.

For example, 27-year-old Lin Xiaohua switched to working remotely last year because the company she works for could no longer afford to pay for an office.

"I only hope that my company won't be closed," Lin says.

Although facing the prospects of a lackluster economy, Lin says she considers herself lucky because she gets to travel while working. Though she is unable to save money, she is not worried because "perhaps you could no longer enjoy this life next year," she said.

She is also thankful to still have a job. There is record-high youth unemployment in China; 21% of workers ages 16 to 24 were out of work according to the latest figures, released in July 2023. Shortly after, China's statistics bureau said it would stop issuing youth unemployment figures because they "needed to be improved."

Chinese policymakers have tried to boost youth employment by offering additional subsidiesto companies that provide apprenticeships for young graduates and hire them for at least one year.

However, nearly 11.6 million university graduates joined the job market last year, and many are still looking for employment. "I don't think the Chinese economy will be able to absorb the new graduates [from 2023]," says Houze Song, a fellow at the Chicago-based think tank the Paulson Institute. "Because of ongoing property crisis and the local government debt drag to growth ... I believe that Chinese growth rate [in 2024] is more likely to be even lower than [in 2023], which means that the youth unemployment rate is more likely to continue to accumulate."

On top of all these pressures, a regulatory blitz last year targeted China's consumer tech companies and education firms, which predominantly hired millennial and Gen Z workers. The layoffs disproportionately hit younger Chinese.

Thirty-four-year-old Zhao Wei is one of those laid off by a tech company in Beijing last year. Until recent weeks, to avoid the embarrassment of telling her live-in mother-in-law she's unemployed, she went to cafes and libraries, pretending she had a job while trying not to spend too much money.

But Zhao says the charade of pretending to have a job was wearing thin. So she has now decided to take this opportunity to slow down and take a break, like many people in her age bracket. Dropping out of the formal economy is now common enough that there's a popular term for it: lying flat, or tangping, in Chinese.

"Our two generations have completely different attitudes towards work," she told NPR from one of her favorite cafes in Beijing. "Work should not define a person's value."

Faced with the country's dimming economic prospects, she says she is not in a rush to find another job.


Emily Feng reported from Taipei, Taiwan. Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing and Anji, Zhejiang province.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.