China’s Youth Unemployment and the Lying Flat Movement

September 26, 2023 – China’s youth unemployment rate reached an unprecedented high of 21.3 percent in June, marking a startling trend throughout the year. The grim employment prospects and cutthroat work environments have given rise to a growing “lying flat” movement, with many young professionals and middle-class workers opting for a life that rejects the traditional culture of ceaseless toil and conspicuous consumption.

Surprisingly, in response to these developments, the Chinese government has decided to discontinue the monthly publication of youth unemployment statistics. This move has ignited widespread concerns about China’s economic future. However, the question arises: Is China’s economic outlook truly as bleak as it may seem?

In short, the answer is no. Despite the challenges posed by a rising youth unemployment rate, China’s economy has shown resilience since emerging from the shadows of COVID-19 lockdowns in the previous year. In the second quarter of 2023, the Chinese economy experienced an impressive year-on-year growth rate of 6.3 percent, surpassing the average annual growth rate of OECD countries.

The perceptual dissonance surrounding China’s economic outlook can be partly attributed to the nation’s exceptional economic performance over the past few decades, often referred to as the “Chinese growth miracle.” For more than twenty years, China consistently achieved an astonishing annual growth rate of approximately 10 percent.

However, it is essential to recognize that such miracles have inherent limits. Chinese policymakers have long anticipated a gradual economic slowdown, projected to stabilize at 3-5 percent by 2030, with high-skilled sectors, such as technology, continuing to expand.

Regrettably, the deceleration in GDP growth has occurred earlier and more severely than initially anticipated. Several factors, including policy decisions, the protracted trade dispute with the United States, and the lasting economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have contributed to this abrupt slowdown.

One critical aspect that economists and policymakers failed to predict accurately is the segments of the population most vulnerable to these economic challenges. It was widely assumed that high-skilled occupations, particularly in the technology sector, would remain insulated. This assumption stemmed from memories of the mass layoffs of blue-collar workers during China’s transition from a command economy to a market-driven one in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

In contrast to this assumption, older workers are now less susceptible to job losses due to their experience and protective labor laws. As a result, the burden of job contraction has shifted disproportionately to the younger generation, with recent Chinese graduates facing intense competition for positions that often offer lower compensation compared to previous years.

For many graduates who invested years of intensive study and faced immense academic pressure, this reality is a bitter pill to swallow. Parents and sometimes even grandparents have poured resources into ensuring academic excellence, starting as early as preschool, in the hopes of securing a bright future for their children.

The “lying flat” movement, which has gained momentum in response to these challenges, represents a significant cultural shift in China. As young professionals and middle-class workers contemplate alternative paths to success and fulfillment, it remains to be seen how this movement will influence the nation’s economic landscape in the coming years.

Personal Opinion: China’s evolving economic landscape underscores the necessity for adaptable expectations and a reevaluation of societal values. While the youth unemployment challenge presents its own set of complexities, it also represents an opportunity for Chinese society to redefine success beyond conventional career trajectories. By encouraging diverse paths to personal fulfillment and prosperity, China can potentially harness the creativity and resilience of its youth to chart a more sustainable and balanced future.

Yuval Noah Harari

Yuval Noah Harari is an accomplished author with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. His passion for storytelling and commitment to journalistic excellence have been the driving forces behind his successful writing career. With a keen eye for detail and a deep understanding of the art of storytelling, Yuval has consistently delivered compelling narratives that captivate readers from all walks of life.