China’s youth reject the culture of noise. Facing unemployment and economic uncertainty
Crystal Guo says she usually works for six months to a year before letting go.
This is what the 30-year-old describes as her new lifestyle of “intermittent work and constant lying down.”
Young people in China are growing increasingly disillusioned and frustrated with work and life, and some are now turning their backs on an overwhelmingly boisterous culture as they face challenges ranging from high unemployment to layoffs and economic uncertainty.
The competition is so intense that some say they have given up on their dreams and aspirations.
The concept of “tangping” – which means “to lie flat” in Chinese – became a popular term in China last year. It was one of the top 10 online buzzwords in China in 2021, according to the National Center for Language Resource Monitoring and Research.
“The popularity of this word reflects the tension and disappointment that young people feel,” said Jia Miao, an assistant professor of sociology from New York University in Shanghai.
“Tang Bing is refusing to overdo, letting things do the bare minimum,” Miao said.
In March of this year, another Chinese term appeared on the Internet. Reflecting an attitude towards life, the term ‘Bai Lan’ means ‘let it rot’. Posts related to the topic have garnered more than 91 million views on Chinese social media giant Weibo as of Wednesday.
“Bei Lan is the place where the youth refuse to put in more effort [in life] Because they see no hope of doing so.”
The term first gained popularity among gamers in popular video games such as “League of Legends,” according to Miao. It was initially used to describe players who retreat or give up during a difficult battle to take on “easier missions” instead.
“This group of people are active netizens, so this word later became popular even among non-players,” Miao added.
While the anti-hustle mindset of tang ping (lying flat) seems to have some similarities to the so-called quiet quit movement that gained popularity on TikTok last month, bai lan (let it rot) appears to be a more negative term, Miao. Noting that it refers to a state of deterioration in which “one gives up any possibility of hope.”
What is the source of this disappointment among young people in China? CNBC Make It finds out.
Unemployment and doubts
Miao said that both the buzzwords, Tang Bing and Bai Lan, reflect the fierce competition that Chinese youth face today.
“While competition is expected in society, this comes on top of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and … this year it has been very difficult for young people to find jobs.”
According to the National Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate for 16-24-year-olds was nearly 20% in July, well above the national urban unemployment rate of 5.6%.
Speaking to CNBC in Mandarin, Guo said she had been laid off twice in less than a year, something she called “suspicious.”
She was first laid off in July of last year, while working for a private company that provides after-school education. Guo was laid off when China cracked down on the education system and implemented a “double reduction” policy, aimed at easing students’ off-campus teaching burden.
After traveling for half a year around China with a severance package, Guo returned to her hometown of Shenzhen and found a job at a real estate company in February of this year.
To her horror, her department was completely laid off soon after.
“I was definitely impressed…the job market situation this year has been pretty dire. When I tried to find another job, it was during the time that the tech industry was reporting layoffs,” Joe said.
“I was looking for a job with enthusiasm, but I couldn’t find a suitable job.”
Lying down, she said, has become a form of “escape from reality” for Guo. After failing to secure another job, she used her spare time to take up part-time jobs to make ends meet, or pursue other hobbies.
“I admit, it could be an escape from the fact of having to find a job.”
Lying on the roof and letting it rot, Miao said, is the antithesis of the definition of success in China — which can be depicted by the phrase “Zheng Jia Li Yi.” “That means, being able to buy an apartment, have a family, a good career and money.”
However, it wasn’t just the shaky job market that made these aspirations increasingly unattainable for some people, no matter how hard the job was.
For example, Miao said, buying a home in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing has become “almost impossible” for the average Chinese youth.
According to Zhuge, a monitoring and research institute of China’s real estate market, the country’s housing price-income ratio is “much higher” than the international average by 3 to 6 times.
Data from Zhuge showed that in 2021, median home prices were 12 times more than median incomes.
She added that a perceived lack of social mobility, along with the rising cost of living, is prompting frustrated young people to “turn their backs” on such expectations.
“A lot of people choose to avoid thinking about it. They refuse to compete, they refuse to compete for money or an apartment or marriage,” she added.
This is the mentality of 31-year-old Qiu Xiaotian, who said that It matches the idea of ”lying flat”. He defines it as doing only what is necessary to survive, and “not striving for things,” according to CNBC’s translation of his Mandarin comments.
Qiu, who works as a videographer, said, “For me, he refuses to be hijacked by societal expectations. For example, houses are expensive, and there’s no point in thinking about it because it would cause me so much stress.”
“Even though I’m married, I don’t want to have children either. Why should my having children degrade my quality of life so dramatically? I can’t give my child a good life.”
For Guo, who turned 30 this year, societal expectations that one should have the ability to own a home, and boast a good job and family, are felt most when she compares herself to her peers.
“There’s this expectation that I’ll have a home, a good career and a family – I don’t have any of them.”
Jo said the concept of lying down, or not having a full-time job in her case, gave her time to think about what she valued in life.
“When I was 22, I worried if I hadn’t achieved anything by the age of 30. But now I’m in my 30s, I accept being mediocre. I don’t think it’s important to be rich, or to be able to buy a house anymore.”
“When I was working, my life revolved around work and I felt like I was wasting time for myself,” she added.
Backlash and criticism
However, Guo insisted that choosing to lie down did not mean she had given up on herself.
“Although it seems like I’ve been doing nothing for 6 months, I’m working hard on myself. Tang ping gives me breathing space to think about my career and my future, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
She was also inspired by her time away from work to earn a master’s degree in psychology.
“I’ve set goals for myself when I’m not working, so I don’t feel like Tang Ping is a waste.”
Despite the popularity of buzzwords like Tang Bing and Bai Lan, Guo said it didn’t necessarily translate into a complete lack of movement among the youth.
Likewise, quitting quietly doesn’t mean you’re leaving the job – for some, it means setting limits and not doing extra work; For others, it just means not going any further.
“Some young people say that, but they actually don’t. For example, they will say, ‘Today is my fourth day in Bai Lan.'” From tomorrow onwards, I must start writing my thesis.”
Qui agreed, saying tang ping is not a big deal.
“People who lie flat like me, it’s not like they don’t contribute [to their companies]They lack the incentive to provide additional value.”
CNBC’s Iris Wang contributed to this report.
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