Lockdowns in China Move Atlas to Shrug

(p. A1) By the usual measures, Loretta Liu had it made. She graduated in 2018 from one of China’s top universities, rented an apartment in the glamorous city of Shenzhen, and had been hired as a visual designer at a series of high-flying companies, even as youth unemployment in China was reaching record highs.

Then, last year, she quit. She now works as a groomer at a chain pet store, for one-fifth of her previous salary. She spends hours on her feet, wearing a uniform in place of her once carefully selected outfits.

And she is delighted.

“I was tired of living like that. I didn’t feel like I was getting anything from the work,” Ms. Liu said of her previous job, where she said she had little creative freedom, often worked overtime, and felt her mental and physical health deteriorating. “So I thought, there’s no need anymore.”

Ms. Liu is part of a phenomenon attracting growing attention in China: young people trading high-pressure, prestigious white-collar jobs for manual labor. The scale of the trend is hard to measure, but widely shared social media posts have documented a tech worker becoming a grocery store cashier; an accountant peddling street sausages; a content manager delivering takeout. On Xiaohongshu, an Instagram-like app, the hashtag “My first experience with physical labor” has more than 28 million views.

. . .

Around the world, the coronavirus pandemic spurred people to reassess the value of their work — see the “Great Resignation” in the United States. But in China, the forces fueling the disillusionment of young people are particularly intense. Long working hours and domineering managers are common. The economy is slowing, dimming the prospect of upward mobility for a generation that has known only explosive growth.

And then there were China’s three years of “zero Covid” restrictions, which forced many to endure prolonged lockdowns, layoffs and the realization of how little control their hard work gave them over their futures.

“Emotionally, everyone probably can’t bear it anymore, because during the pandemic we saw many unfair and strange things, like being locked up,” Ms. Liu said.

. . .

When Yolanda Jiang, 24, resigned last summer from her architectural design job in Shenzhen, after being asked to work 30 days straight, she hoped to find another office job. It was only after three months of unsuccessful searching, her savings dwindling, that she took a job as a security guard in a university residential complex.

At first, she was embarrassed to tell her family or friends, but she grew to appreciate the role. Her 12-hour shifts, though long, were leisurely. She got off work on time. The job came with free dormitory housing. Her salary of about $870 a month was even about 20 percent higher than her take-home pay before — a symptom of how the glut of college graduates has started to flatten wages for that group.

But Ms. Jiang said her ultimate goal is still to return to an office, where she hoped to find more intellectual challenges. She had been taking advantage of the slow pace at her security job to study English, which she hoped would help her land her next role, perhaps at a foreign trade company.

“I’m not actually lying flat,” Ms. Jiang said. “I’m treating this as a time to rest, transition, learn, charge my batteries and think about the direction of my life.”

For the full story, see:

Vivian Wang and Zixu Wang. “In China, Young Workers Ditch Prestige Jobs for Manual Gigs.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 11, 2023): A1 & A11.

(Note: bracketed year added.]

(Note: the online version of the story has the same date as the print version, and has the title “In China, Young People Ditch Prestige Jobs for Manual Labor.”)

The title of this blog entry alludes to Ayn Rand’s novel:

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

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