China urges jobless graduates to ‘roll up their sleeves’ and try manual work

China is shifting the blame for soaring youth unemployment on to jobless university graduates, accusing them of refusing to put aside their professional ambitions and take on manual labour.

In recent weeks, state broadcasters and news agencies have published more than a dozen profiles of recent university graduates who allegedly made a fortune in low-skilled jobs such as selling street food or growing fruit, rather than pursuing a career in their area of study.

The Communist Youth League last month criticised young graduates for holding on to their professional aspirations, accusing them of refusing to “tighten screws in factories” and exhorting the current generation to “take off their suits, roll up their sleeves and go to the farmland”.

But the government’s narrative has drawn scorn on social media, with unemployed graduates criticising authorities for failing to create enough jobs for the growing ranks of well-educated youth. A much-liked WeChat retort to the Communist Youth League was to ask if its author was “willing to give up your current position and salary to become a cleaner”.

The backlash underscores growing public anger over a lack of social mobility in China, where coronavirus controls and a sweeping crackdown on the private sector have weighed on the world’s second-largest economy, further entrenching inequality.

While China’s economic recovery has begun to gain momentum, with growth rebounding to 4.5 per cent in the first quarter after pandemic restrictions were scrapped early this year, youth unemployment has remained a persistent area of pain.

Young job hunters were hit particularly hard by lockdowns, and many are still struggling. Unemployment in March among those aged 16 to 24 reached 19.6 per cent — the second-highest level on record — and has now stood above 16 per cent for a full year. By contrast, the country’s broader jobless rate has hovered at about 5 per cent.

Line chart of Jobless rate in urban areas (%) showing China’s recovery is still failing to create jobs for younger workers

The swelling ranks of jobless youth also represent a looming demographic challenge for Chinese policymakers. The country’s population is entering decline for the first time in six decades and is set to be overtaken by India’s, just as concerns mount about a structural slowdown in economic growth.

Today’s graduates will be responsible for supporting their ageing parents, a cohort that outnumbers China’s youth after decades of strict family planning policies, while facing limited professional prospects and opportunities to start accumulating wealth.

“Investing in education no longer guarantees a high return,” said Ming Xia, a political-science professor at the City University of New York. “That has undermined the basic idea of how ordinary people could climb the social ladder.”

The situation shows little signs of easing, as a record 11.6mn college graduates are expected to enter the already tight labour market this year. A survey last November of 100 China-based employers by 51job, a job listings website, found that more than half of respondents planned to reduce hiring in 2023.

As appealing job opportunities dry up, Beijing has begun asking graduates to lower their ambitions and take up the kind of modest manual labour that drove China’s dramatic economic rise.

State media outlets, led by China Central Television, ran multiple profiles last month of recent university graduates who claim to earn seven-figure incomes ($145,000 and above) in professions that do not require advanced qualifications.

In one widely shared video published by CCTV, a young couple with college degrees said they made Rmb9,184 ($1,335) a night as street food vendors selling teppanyaki tofu and French fries in eastern Zhejiang province.

Tourists wait for snacks at a booth selling tofu in Zhuhai
A snack stand in Zhuhai, China. State media has encouraged young college graduates to take up jobs such as food vending in an absence of other opportunities © Deng Guohui/VCG/Getty Images

In response, a popular post on microblogging platform Weibo estimated that the street food vending couple would need to serve 1.6 customers per minute throughout the night in order to meet their sales target. “If it’s so easy to make money,” wrote the author, “I am sure we will be surrounded by tofu and French fry vendors everywhere.”

A few days later, the couple conceded in an interview with the Beijing Youth Daily that their sales were generally at least a third less than the day of the CCTV interview.

The pushback has also drawn critical attention to China’s lack of effective labour protections, as young job seekers accused authorities of failing to uphold working conditions.

White-collar workers routinely put in long hours, such as tech companies’ notorious “996” schedule — where employees work from 9am to 9pm, six days a week — or being on-call 24-hours per day, seven days a week, with no overtime or paid time off.

“You should implement the labour law and address workers’ real concern,” one WeChat commenter wrote.

In the northern province of Hebei, Lucy Liu, a university student, said that after failing to find a suitable job, she would pursue a master’s degree next autumn in the UK.

“I am not going to lower my standard in my career search,” said Liu. “I will try to find a job that matches my interests regardless of the external environment.”

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