Overworked, Julie gave up her job as a game developer in Beijing
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A 32-year-old who recently left Chinese tech giant Tencent said he answered nearly 7,000 work-related text messages outside of work hours every day, which he describes as “invisible overtime work” since it wasn’t compensated. After suffering from folliculitis, a skin condition caused by inflamed hair follicles, he finally quit work.

Zheng has since found a better job, but he says people around him are not as fortunate. There is also a widespread belief in China that employers are less willing to hire workers older than 35 – instead, they prefer young, cheaper workers.

In their mid-30s, those with a mortgage or considering starting a family are faced with a double-edged sword of age discrimination and bleak employment opportunities.

There is no less despair among university students, so much so that some have failed their exams just to delay graduation.

Recently, Chinese social media has been flooded with atypical graduation photos that reflect fresh graduates’ disillusionment. Many graduation pictures show young people lying flat in graduation gowns, their faces covered with mortarboards; others show them holding their graduation certificates above dustbins.

The pursuit of a university degree was once considered an elite pursuit in China. However, between 2012 and 2022, enrollment rates rose from 30% to 59.6% as more and more young people saw college degrees as a ticket to better job prospects. In the face of a teetering job market, aspirations have given way to disappointment. There are 11.6 million fresh graduates entering the job market this year, which experts say will worsen youth unemployment.

Miriam Wickertsheim, general manager at Shanghai-based recruitment company Direct HR, said “the situation is quite bad. People are tired and many are trying to opt out.”

In Jones Lang LaSalle’s Greater China region, chief economist Bruce Pang says China’s slower-than-expected economic recovery is a major contributor to high unemployment.

Young Chinese are increasingly overworked or struggling to find jobs

This April, Julie quit her job as a game developer in Beijing to become a “full-time mother”.

It is now the 29-year-old’s job to wash dishes, prepare meals for her parents, and do other household chores. In spite of the fact that her parents pay for most of her daily expenses, Julie has declined their offer of a monthly wage of 2,000 yuan ($280; £215).

After all, her current priority is to take a break from the 16-hour days she worked in her previous job. She described herself as a walking corpse.

In the face of grueling work hours and a bleak job market, young Chinese are forced to make unusual choices.

As part of the growing group of people known as “full-time children,” Julie is driven back home either because she craves a break from her exhausting work schedule, or because she cannot find employment.

Despite being told their hard work would pay off, young Chinese now feel trapped and defeated after years of hard work.

The youth unemployment rate in China is at new highs, with more than one in five of those between 16 and 24 unemployed. According to official figures released on Monday, that number now stands at 21.3% – the highest level since authorities began publishing data in 2018. There is no account for the rural labour market in this figure.

So-called “full-time children” say they intend to stay at home only temporarily – they see it as an opportunity to relax, reflect, and find better jobs. It’s easier said than done, though.

In the past two weeks, Julie has sent more than 40 job applications to recruiters, but has only received two interview calls. It was hard to find a job before I quit. After I quit, it got even harder.”

Burnt out, jobless or stuck?

Since China has notoriously poor work-life balance – often referred to as the “996” – where people believe that working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week, is a norm – burnout drives working adults to become “full-time children.”

A “full-time daughter”, Chen Dudu left her job in real estate earlier this year due to burnout and undervaluation. After paying rent, the 27-year-old said she had “barely anything left.”

Ms Chen said she “lived the life of a retiree” when she was back at her parents’ home in southern China, but anxiety has been creeping up on her. It’s rare to have this leisure, so enjoy it. But the other voice keeps telling her to think about what to do next.

According to Chen, who has since started her own business: “If that went on for a long time, I would have become parasitic.”