HONG KONG — Whether you call them jiu ling hou — the “post-'90s generation” — or millennials, things are not so different for recent college graduates in China and the US.
Derided in both countries as spoiled, selfish and entitled, yet struggling to find decent work, they belong to generations whose high expectations for comfort and prosperity have been thwarted by economic trends.
In America, the class of 2012 faces crippling student debt, declining wages, and 9.9 percent unemployment rate for college graduates under 25 years old — all against the backdrop of a lingering national downturn.
But in China, the situation may be even worse. A full quarter of recent college graduates in China are unemployed, according to official statistics published by the state-run Xinhua News Agency. And many of those who are employed end up working in jobs very far from their undergraduate studies.
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The Chinese media is rife with tales of overeducated young people taking jobs as cashiers, assembly-line workers, even “night soil collectors.”
In fact, some argue that the prospects for educated workers is worse than for low-skilled laborers. Factory workers are in high demand in the industrial heartland of southern China. In the last year alone, wages for migrant workers rose 14.9 percent. But while an education has long been considered a ticket to a brighter future in China, the number of well-paying jobs has not grown nearly as fast as enrollment.
Over the last decade, China’s college-educated population has multiplied eightfold, from 830,000 graduating in 1998 to 6.8 million in 2012. Yet at the same time, much of China’s growth has been fueled by industrial, blue-collar sectors like manufacturing, exporting and construction.
As a result, many college graduates have decided to embrace the migrant-worker lifestyle. Out of young migrant workers in 2011, fully a quarter had college degrees, according to a survey by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions.
“I don’t think that anyone dreams of working in a factory. They do so because it’s the best they can get,” says Geoffrey Crothall, communications director of the China Labour Bulletin. “Often the wages they get there are better they can get as a white collar worker.”
One recent mechanical-engineering graduate, Zhu Yuewei, 24, had to content himself with a job as a factory’s product-tester after failing to find any work that used his skills as an engineer.
“What I learned in school is not related to my work, but I'm a quick learner and I gradually got used to the work,” he told China Daily.
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Of course, graduates of the very best schools — Peking University, Tsinghua, and Fudan — can expect good employment prospects, but the millions of alumni of second- or third-tier schools are facing a much harsher landscape.
In this way, the experience of Zheng Hua Jun, 26, has been typical. A native of China’s bustling industrial and commercial heartland in Guangdong Province, Zheng matriculated at Guangdong University of Technology in 2002. On the advice of an older friend who told him that jobs would be abundant, he decided to major in animation.
After he graduated, he found that jobs for animators were few and far between. He worked briefly as a tutor, then considered selling cell phones or life insurance; eventually, he found a job as a real-estate agent that paid less than the tutoring.
“When I first got into it, I knew nothing about real estate, property laws, regulations or what papers people needed to sign,” he says.
He now lives and works in the city of Guangzhou, sharing an apartment with an old classmate. He works 12-hour days that he says are “exhausting." Asked if he feels he’s missing something not using his skills as an animator, he said, “It’s very hard to describe the feelings, but maybe there’s a little disappointment.”
Many college graduates have it much worse than him. In 2009, a Chinese professor popularized the term “ant tribe” to describe the large population of college graduates crammed in group apartments in the dingy outskirts of major cities, working dead end or menial jobs just to pay the rent. Professor Lian Si of the University of International Business and Economics estimated that there were one million of these "ants" in Chinese cities in 2010, making an average of 1,904RMB ($286) a month.
Central authorities have tried to cope with the problem. One strategy has been to warn students away from majors with the highest unemployment rates — deemed “red majors.” In June of this year, the government named nine “red majors,” which included animation and sports education as well as law, engineering and biological technology. So-called “green majors” — the ones with the highest rates of employment — include harbor engineering, coastal engineering and ship engineering.
Another strategy is to encourage students to launch their own businesses. In 2011, Beijing announced a plan to offer loans of up to $15,000 to entrepreneurial new grads. It also urged jobless young people to consider moving to the countryside to become rural teachers.
Despite these measures, the problem persists. Graduation ceremonies this year have been marked by sarcastic protests. New graduates of the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies dressed up as migrant workers to show how little money they would be making, while the advertising department of Jinan University posed for photos under a banner that says, “Jinan University Advertising Department, you fucked my youth!”
Much of the anger has to do with the perception that uneducated workers not only have an easier time finding jobs, but also make nearly as much money as college-educated ones. In 2011, according to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the average recent college graduate made an average of 2,766 yuan per month. Yet the average Chinese migrant worker makes 2,049 per month, according to the National Bureau of Labor Statistics. After investing years in a pricy university education, young Chinese are irked by workers like Chu Shi Song, a migrant from Hunan province, who earned 3,000 yuan a month as a ship painter in Shanghai.
The essential problem, says Crothall of the China Labour Bulletin, is that transforming a manufacturing economy into a service economy cannot happen overnight.
“The process of moving up the value chain will take a very long time. Anyone who thinks this is a quick fix is just dreaming,” he says.
“As China’s service industries start to develop, obviously more jobs will become available. But we’re still very much at the beginning of that process. And to what extent China can become a predominately service based economy, I doubt.”
China’s government has tried to discourage investing excessive hope in a college diploma. An editorial in China’s state-run Global Times urged young people to believe “There is nothing to be ashamed if you work with your hands,” warning darkly that “The dream of being a white-collar country will not come to fruition.”