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How young adults in China feel about their dimming economic prospects


China's economy is slowing, and that's put pressure on its younger citizens. After a generation of explosive growth, they're now facing what looks like stagnation going forward, so how does that feel? For our series on China this week, NPR's Emily Feng asked that question.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China's youth came of age during a time of huge growth, but now a sense of gloom is hanging about them. They include 20-year-old Jeffery An (ph), who saw his parents rise from rural poverty to urban wealth in part by investing in an exploding property market, one of the reasons why China grew so fast in the last four decades. But for himself, he sees no similar opportunities today.

JEFFERY AN: (Through interpreter) I probably won't buy any property for now because I feel the property market will collapse and that collapse will spread to other cities in the future.

FENG: Instead, he feels China's best years are behind him.

AN: (Through interpreter) China's golden years, the two decades or so after our country's reform and opening up policies, are over. There's nothing I can do about this. I can only accept it.

FENG: His disillusionment is in stark contrast to the Chinese of the last generation. Liqian Ren, a research director at global asset manager WisdomTree, explains.

LIQIAN REN: The people who were born in the '70s and '80s, they feel the future is so bright. You know, all you need is just, you know, work hard and, you know, get to the next level.

FENG: She would know because she was part of that optimistic generation. She got to attend university and move into a big city and, later, study and live abroad. Whereas those entering the job market now face much dimmer prospects.

REN: I think for the younger generation, the wage growth has really significantly slowed down. The expectation definitely has changed for the next generation.

FENG: Houze Song, a fellow at the Chicago-based think tank the Paulson Institute, says youth unemployment has been building for years. This year, more than 11.5 million university graduates joined the job market, and many are still looking for a job.

HOUZE SONG: I don't think the Chinese economy will be - manage to absorb the new graduates this year. And because of ongoing property and local government debt drag to growth, I believe the Chinese growth rate next year is more likely to be lower - even lower than this year. So which means that the youth unemployment rate is more likely to continue to accumulate.

FENG: On top of all these pressures, a regulatory blitz last year targeted China's consumer tech companies and education firms, which predominantly hired millennial and Gen Z workers. The layoffs disproportionately hit younger Chinese. Thirty-four-year-old Zhao Wei (ph) was laid off in Beijing by one of these tech companies this year. Until recent weeks, to avoid the embarrassment of telling her live-in mother-in-law she's unemployed, she went to cafes and libraries, pretending she has a job while trying not to spend too much money.

ZHAO WEI: I would get up and leave the house at 10 a.m. each day, and don't come back until 8 or 9 in the evening.

FENG: But Zhao says the charade of pretending to have a job is wearing thin, so she's now decided to take this opportunity to slow down and take a break, like many people in her age bracket. Dropping out of the formal economy is now common enough that there is a popular term for it, lying flat - or tang ping in Chinese.

ZHAO: (Through interpreter) Our two generations have completely different attitudes towards work. Work should not define a person's value.

FENG: Faced with the country's dimming economic prospects, she's not in a rush to find another job. After all, why work so hard when the heady days of double-digit economic growth are a thing of the past?

Emily Feng, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.