Some people who’ve walked away from China’s grueling corporate culture say it’s worth the financial sacrifice. “I was tired of living like that,” one said.
By the usual measures, Loretta Liu had it made. She graduated in 2018 from one of China’s top universities, rented an apartment in the glamorous city of Shenzhen, and had been hired as a visual designer at a series of high-flying companies, even as youth unemployment in China was reaching record highs.
Then, last year, she quit. She now works as a groomer at a chain pet store, for one-fifth of her previous salary. She spends hours on her feet, wearing a uniform in place of her once carefully selected outfits.
And she is delighted.
“I was tired of living like that. I didn’t feel like I was getting anything from the work,” Ms. Liu said of her previous job, where she said she had little creative freedom, often worked overtime, and felt her mental and physical health deteriorating. “So I thought, there’s no need anymore.”
Ms. Liu is part of a phenomenon attracting growing attention in China: young people trading high-pressure, prestigious white-collar jobs for manual labor. The scale of the trend is hard to measure, but widely shared social media posts have documented a tech worker becoming a grocery store cashier; an accountant peddling street sausages; a content manager delivering takeout. On Xiaohongshu, an Instagram-like app, the hashtag “My first experience with physical labor” has more than 28 million views.
Proponents describe the joy of predictable hours and a less competitive atmosphere. They acknowledge that the change requires sacrifices — Ms. Liu said she saved about $15,000 before quitting and has cut her spending dramatically — but say that they are worth escaping the spiritual draining of their former jobs. Ms. Liu said she much preferred the physical exhaustion of wrestling with uncooperative dogs to the mental toll of poring over design assignments she had not chosen. Many also say they are looking for light physical labor, not intensive work like construction or factory jobs.
Around the world, the coronavirus pandemic spurred people to reassess the value of their work — see the “Great Resignation” in the United States. But in China, the forces fueling the disillusionment of young people are particularly intense. Long working hours and domineering managers are common. The economy is slowing, dimming the prospect of upward mobility for a generation that has known only explosive growth.
And then there were China’s three years of “zero Covid” restrictions, which forced many to endure prolonged lockdowns, layoffs and the realization of how little control their hard work gave them over their futures.
“Emotionally, everyone probably can’t bear it anymore, because during the pandemic we saw many unfair and strange things, like being locked up,” Ms. Liu said.
The job-changing trend has revived a debate about the futility of the rat race. Two years ago, a similar call to quit work and enjoy life, dubbed “lying flat,” spread widely online. Critics accused adherents of wasting their parents’ investment and abandoning the industriousness that helped build China into a superpower. But others blamed a values system that had prioritized one, consumerist path to success, for their disenchantment.
Since then, competition for white-collar jobs has grown only more cutthroat. A record number of students are expected to graduate from universities this year, even as companies have cut back on hiring. The unemployment rate among people ages 16 to 24 was nearly 20 percent last summer, according to official statistics, with the rate higher among college graduates.
So rather than trying even harder to compete, some find the traditionally less coveted route attractive.
“The purpose of studying and accumulating knowledge is not to land an impressive job, but to have the bravery to accept more possibilities,” reads the description for one online forum, which invited its more than 39,000 members to ask how tiring setting up a street stall is, or to describe their experience waiting tables.
When Eunice Wang, 25, was offered a consulting job in Beijing last year after finishing her master’s degree, she immediately accepted. She was proud of having stood out among so much competition, and she wanted to see how much further she could go.
But China’s corporate culture is notoriously demanding, with employee deaths at internet companies prompting questions about overwork and mental health. Soon, Ms. Wang said, she fell into a vicious cycle: She developed anxiety from her heavy workload, but was too busy to decompress. She also had not seen her parents in nearly a year, because of Covid travel restrictions.
Last fall, she quit. She now works at a coffee shop in her hometown Shenyang, in northeastern China, making one-fifth of her previous salary. She is living with her parents and earning extra money through freelance illustrating, a hobby she’d given up in Beijing.
Ms. Wang, who described her family as comfortably middle class, acknowledged that she was lucky she could afford such a choice. She would return to white-collar work if her parents one day needed financial support, she said. But until then, she valued the opportunity to challenge her long-held notions of success.
“Everyone thought that conquering a project or securing a client was such a great thing, and I wanted to force myself to believe the same,” she said of her former job. But she discovered that she found enough gratification in befriending a customer, or being praised for a well-made latte. “I don’t need other people to tell me what my future will hold.”
Those who have made the change are likely still a tiny minority. Many who have posted in online forums are asking questions rather than jumping in. Some who left their higher-earning positions acknowledge that they do not know how long they will stay in their new occupations; some say they are now spending more than they earn.
Online critics have slammed the job switchers as naïve, suggesting that they are playacting at poverty or taking blue-collar jobs from less educated people who need them.
But criticism has also flowed in the opposite direction: China’s state broadcaster recently blamed the unemployment problem in part on young, educated Chinese being too unwilling to take on blue-collar work, suggesting that they were spoiled.
Social media users responded furiously, pointing out that society had long prized education above all else and, especially since China’s economic reform began, cast manual labor as something to be shaken off.
The problem was not that young people thought they were too good for that work, but that it did not offer a real chance at a better life, because of lower wages and persistent discrimination, said Nie Riming, a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of Finance and Law. Until China offered better-paid blue-collar jobs and accorded them most respect, young people were being pragmatic, not picky.
“If society isn’t diverse, it’s impossible to expect students to make diverse choices,” he said.
Even some of the young Chinese praising their new, less prestigious jobs had not initially planned to take them.
When Yolanda Jiang, 24, resigned last summer from her architectural design job in Shenzhen, after being asked to work 30 days straight, she hoped to find another office job. It was only after three months of unsuccessful searching, her savings dwindling, that she took a job as a security guard in a university residential complex.
At first, she was embarrassed to tell her family or friends, but she grew to appreciate the role. Her 12-hour shifts, though long, were leisurely. She got off work on time. The job came with free dormitory housing. Her salary of about $870 a month was even about 20 percent higher than her take-home pay before — a symptom of how the glut of college graduates has started to flatten wages for that group.
But Ms. Jiang said her ultimate goal is still to return to an office, where she hoped to find more intellectual challenges. She had been taking advantage of the slow pace at her security job to study English, which she hoped would help her land her next role, perhaps at a foreign trade company.
“I’m not actually lying flat,” Ms. Jiang said. “I’m treating this as a time to rest, transition, learn, charge my batteries and think about the direction of my life.”
Joy Dong contributed reporting.