Young Chinese are getting paid to be ‘full-time children’ as jobs become harder to find

Jul 27, 2023, 5:00 AM

An evening job fair at the Wanshou Palace Historical Culture Block 2023 in southeast China's Jiangx...

An evening job fair at the Wanshou Palace Historical Culture Block 2023 in southeast China's Jiangxi province. Photo credit: China News Service/Getty Images

HONG KONG (CNN) — Exhausted by the pressure to succeed as a photographer, Litsky Li accepted a better offer: quit work to become one of China’s growing legions of children paid by their families to be full-time children.

Li, 21, now spends her days grocery shopping for her family in the central city of Luoyang and caring for her grandmother, who has dementia. Her parents pay her a salary of 6,000 yuan ($835) a month, which is considered a solid middle-class wage in her area.

“The reason why I am at home is because I can’t bear the pressure of going to school or work,” said Li, a high school graduate. “I don’t want to compete intensely with my peers. So I choose to ‘lie flat’ completely,” she said, using a popular phrase that refers to eschewing grueling hours and traditional family values in favor of pursuing a simpler life.

“I don’t necessarily need a higher paid job or a better life,” she added.

Li is not alone. And it’s not just dissatisfaction driving the phenomenon of “full-time sons and daughters,” a label which first appeared on popular Chinese social media site Douban late last year.

Most of the tens of thousands of young people identifying as such on social media say they’re retreating home because they simply can’t get work.

The jobless rate for 16 to 24 year olds in urban areas hit 21.3% last month, a record high.

Youth unemployment has joined a number of headwinds — tepid domestic consumption, a retreat by private industry and a struggling property market — in becoming a major headache for China’s leadership as the country’s post-Covid recovery fizzles out.

And the problem may be much bigger than official data suggests.

Zhang Dandan, an associate professor at Peking University, wrote in an opinion piece last week for news outlet Caixin that if 16 million young people “lying flat” at home or relying on their parents were included, and therefore not actively looking for work, the true unemployment rate for youth could have been as high as 46.5% in March.

A growing trend

On Douban, about 4,000 members of a group called “full-time children’s work communication center” discuss topics related to their daily “working” lives.

The buzzword has spread to other social media platforms. On Xiaohongshu, China’s most popular lifestyle sharing platform among younger people, there are currently more than 40,000 posts under the “full-time sons and daughters” hashtag.

Primarily in their 20s, they say they’re different from “ken lao zu,” which roughly translates to “the generation that eats the old,” a previous phenomenon popular among those born in the 1980s.

Those 30-somethings studied and pushed hard to get ahead in their careers, and often do little at home despite relying on family for help with rents and other expenses. By contrast, today’s “professional” children spend time with parents and do housework in exchange for financial support.

“If you look at us from a different perspective, we are no different than the young people who have a job,” said Li, whose family supported her in her decision to drop out of the rat race.

“They go to work in cities and earn a monthly salary of 3,000 to 4,000 yuan ($419 to $559). But they can’t support themselves at all. They still eat at their parents’ house, live with them or have them pay for their apartments or cars. Their living expenses are partially paid by parents,” she said.

Sociologists say China’s traumatic experiences with strict pandemic measures has contributed to the number of young people radically rethinking their life goals and the parents supporting them.

“Mentally and psychologically, people in mainland China are still recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Fang Xu, a continuing lecturer at the University of California Berkeley.

“I believe the desire to spend quality [time] with your loved ones, the contemplation about the meaning of life or what is the most important things in life still lingers,” she said.

Shrinking opportunities, furious competition

Love, though, may not conquer all. The professional children trend is also a sign that young people are facing shrinking opportunities in an economy that had previously powered ahead for decades, enriching the generations that are now supporting their young.

After an initial burst of activity early this year, China’s economic recovery has slowed and business confidence remains weak. The private sector, the backbone of the economy and the biggest source of employment, has been hit by a sweeping regulatory crackdown since late 2020.

Nancy Chen, a “full-time daughter” in eastern Jiangxi province, was affected by the campaign.

The 24 year-old was teaching at a private tutoring school after graduating from college but lost her job in 2021 when authorities banned for-profit tutoring services.

In addition to her family duties, she’s busy applying for government jobs and taking exams for graduate school.

Chen says she hasn’t landed anything yet because of “furious competition.” There were 30,000 applicants for three recent job vacancies at a municipal government in her province, she added.

“But I can’t be [a full-time daughter] for long,” she said. “I need to pass the exams or find a job. Otherwise I’ll have anxiety.”

Not a solution

Ya-wen Lei, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, said she expects the professional children phenomenon won’t last long.

“The support they receive from their parents in this context is not surprising, as many Chinese parents assist their children with various aspects of life, such as housing, marriage expenses and childcare,” she said, adding that most young people are likely to eventually secure employment.

It’s also not a viable solution to the jobs problem in China, said George Magnus, a research associate at the China Centre at Oxford University and SOAS University of London.

“It may be a short term fix so that they have somewhere to live, jobs to do, and family income as a quid pro quo.

But if young people are not in the labor market acquiring skills and looking for better opportunities, they may then become unemployable, either because they have been out of work for too long, or not managed to stay at the sharp end of skills and training acquisition, Magnus said.

“This is a condition in which short term dislocations, for example, in the labor market, become permanent,” he said.

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Young Chinese are getting paid to be ‘full-time children’ as jobs become harder to find