The job market for Chinese graduates is currently experiencing a period of turmoil, leading to growing concerns over youth unemployment in the country, writes Robynne Tindall
China’s youth unemployment rate rose to a record high of 20.8% in May 2023, breaking the previous record high of 20.4% recorded in April. Over 11.5 million students are set to graduate in June, and many are likely to find themselves struggling to secure stable and fulfilling employment, leading to a growing sense of disillusionment.
China’s slower-than-expected post-Covid economic recovery has created a challenging environment for job seekers. Industries like education and real estate, which were once reliable sources of employment, have been curbed by government regulation, while emerging sectors like AI have yet to reach their full potential. This has left many graduates with limited options and a mismatch between their skills and the demands of the job market.
The Chinese government has responded to the problem by announcing subsidies for companies that hire unemployed graduates and by setting targets for state-owned enterprises to hire trainees. However, it has also criticised recent graduates as “self-indulgent” and emphasised the need to occasionally seek jobs that are below their expectations.
Economic factors aside, rising university enrolment rates are also thought to be contributing to high rates of youth unemployment by lowering the value of a degree. According to the Ministry of Education, the higher education enrolment rate hit 57.8% in 2021, compared to 30% in 2012.
Some have also criticised the universities themselves, arguing that they have failed to adapt curricula to meet the evolving needs of the job market. This disconnect between educational institutions and the demands of employers has resulted in graduates possessing skills that are not in high demand, further widening the gap between education and employment.
Chinese universities will need to follow in the footsteps of universities in the West – which have faced a similar problem with oversupply in recent years – by shifting the focus to practical, hands-on courses and bolstering career services. This could represent an opportunity for UK universities engaging in transnational education in China if they can create industry partnerships and tailor programmes that meet the needs of employers.
As a result, Chinese graduates are being forced to recalibrate their expectations. Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and Xiaohongshu are full of stories of graduates who have taken jobs below their skill level after months of failed job applications, for example, delivering for one of China’s many food delivery platforms. Others have resorted to “knowledge street vending,” setting up street stalls hawking services like copywriting, legal advice and psychological counselling, Sixth Tone recently reported.
Some have welcomed the reduced pressure that comes with more practical roles, viewing it as a chance to escape China’s notoriously punishing office hours. In recent years, many young Chinese people have been rejecting the high expectations placed on them by society, instead choosing to ‘lie flat’, i.e., not overworking, being content with more attainable achievements and taking time for themselves.
Nevertheless, the pressure is on to fix the youth unemployment situation, as the consequences extend beyond the individual and have broader implications for Chinese society. This cohort contributes heavily to consumer spending, a key driver of China’s post-Covid economic recovery.
However, perhaps more importantly for the Chinese government, unemployment among graduates can lead to reduced social mobility, increased social inequalities, and potential social unrest. The frustration and disillusionment experienced by unemployed graduates have already been evident through viral images and stories shared on social media platforms. The Chinese government must address these concerns to ensure stability and progress for the country’s future.