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2019-06-10 09:51:37 Voices

Like most office workers, I’ve had days that made me wish I could just quit and leave it all behind: the paper-shuffling, the boredom, the endless 9-to-5 grind. Back before I had a mortgage payment, I even imagined I might actually go through with it. Now that money’s tight, though, I know I wouldn’t dare. I sometimes joke with my friends that, although buying a house is a big step forward in life, it also leaves you chained to your desk.

Not everyone’s willing to accept that trade-off. Young Chinese are increasingly embracing the so-called naked resignation, in which a worker resigns from their job without a backup plan or even worrying about what comes next. The practice is often framed as symbolic of a generational shift in values, with young people less interested in centering their lives around work, but I wonder if it isn’t also indicative of a shift in material conditions. With so many stuck in dead-end jobs and unable to afford sky-high down payments — the traditional buy-in to the middle class — it’s no wonder they’re rethinking their attitudes toward work.

This May, the story of a 26-year-old couple from eastern China’s Hangzhou City who have naked resigned twice in the past three years went viral on Chinese social media. Each time they resigned, the pair hit the road, crisscrossing the country for more than six months at a time. In total, they traveled over 86,000 kilometers and spent in excess of 500,000 yuan ($72,000). While some netizens wondered where they got the money for their trips or whether their tendency to abruptly resign would scare off future employers, many expressed admiration for their courage and willingness to take control of their lives.

A 26-year-old couple from Hangzhou poses for a photo during a post-naked resignation trip. Courtesy of the subjects

A 26-year-old couple from Hangzhou poses for a photo during a post-naked resignation trip. Courtesy of the subjects

An August 2018 LinkedIn survey found that Chinese born in or after 1995 spent an average of seven months at their first job before quitting. In contrast, respondents born in the ’80s spent an average of 43 months at their first position, and even those born between 1990 and 1994 made it 19 months on average before switching jobs for the first time. A survey published earlier this year by the popular recruitment website 51job found that more than 64% of respondents had naked resigned the last time they changed jobs, a 10% increase over the previous quarter. 

Not long after the LinkedIn survey went viral, the authoritative party-run People’s Daily weighed in on the subject, reminding young people of the importance of “inner strength” and laying a solid foundation for future professional success. Netizens, meanwhile, joked that at some jobs, seven months is already too long.

Indeed, one reason so many young Chinese are willing to take their chances in a slowing economy and fiercely competitive job market is that their current positions are unbearable. According to the above-mentioned 51job survey, the three most common reasons cited by employees for quitting were poor business development, promotion bottlenecks, and dissatisfaction with their current salaries and benefits. Many satirize their predicaments on social media with pithy, self-deprecating couplets like, “Less money, more work, living far from home; Low status, little power, lots of responsibilities.”

In theory, China’s labor law stipulates an eight-hour workday and 44-hour workweek, with paid overtime not to exceed three hours a day or 36 hours a month. In practice, enforcement is lax, and unpaid overtime is ubiquitous. According to Yang Heqing, a researcher and expert on overwork at Capital University of Economics and Business in Beijing, more than 30% of his survey subjects — mostly white-collar workers — reported working more than 50 hours a week, and more than 10% said they worked in excess of 60 hours a week. According to an April survey of white-collar workers by Zhaopin.com, 80% of respondents at private companies reported their workplaces didn’t offer stipends for overtime.

It’s an exhausting way to live. A friend of mine who was in charge of running a new media company’s social accounts handed in her naked resignation earlier this year. According to her, when you work in new media, you can leave work physically, but never mentally: You’re always keeping an eye out for trending topics and need to be ready to write articles at a moment’s notice. At a certain point, throwing caution to the wind and quitting starts to look tempting.

Others simply don’t want to work anymore. The willingness of young Chinese to naked resign shows how quickly attitudes toward work and life have shifted. In an interview, the male half of the above-mentioned Hangzhou couple said that they merely did what 99% of people wished they could. Rather than wait patiently until they had the time and security to enjoy themselves, they simply went for it. “As a ’90s child, I have no regrets about what we’ve done,” the man said. “Dare to think and dare to do.”

This age group seeks work-life balance. Some save up a little money then treat themselves to an extended trip. Others choose to do nothing, relaxing at home until their savings are spent, and only then go out to find another job.

I can’t blame anyone for feeling disillusioned or for deciding to lower their sights and try to just skate by as best they can.

But I think there’s more going on than a shift in values. Speaking as someone who is following a very traditional Chinese path — study hard, get into a good university, find a steady job, save up to buy an apartment, find a “suitable” partner, have one or two children, then do whatever you can to help them start the whole cycle over again — naked resignation isn’t an option. I have a mortgage on my back and a kid in my arm, and while my life can be boring, once you’re on the standardized track, it’s not easy to get off. And it’s not without its rewards: I have a decent job, a loving family, and two apartments. People from my hometown consider me a success.

But all that’s only possible because I live in a small, inexpensive city. If I lived in Beijing, Shanghai. or Guangzhou, I wouldn’t be able to afford to go the traditional route. Like many of my peers, I’d be working overtime for meager pay, knowing I’d never be able to buy an apartment, settle down, and start a family.

No one should be surprised when young Chinese, having figured out that they’ll never live their middle-class dreams, give up on the standardized life and look for meaning elsewhere. After all, is it really necessary to kill yourself working just to buy an overpriced house? Or to get married and have kids when they’ll only bring more pressure and stress? I can’t blame anyone for feeling disillusioned or for deciding to lower their sights and try to just skate by as best they can.

Viewed from this perspective, naked resignation bears a distinct resemblance to other popular subversive youth subcultures, such as sang, the so-called Buddhist youth lifestyle, and the hidden low-income population. Faced with an increasingly stratified and ossified class structure, young Chinese may simply be tired of striving for something that’ll always be just out of reach.

Especially for those born in the ’90s and ’00s, saying “no” to the lives their parents and society have planned for them is a way of taking a stand against pervasive materialism. It can even be read as a form of protest against China’s overheated housing market. By opting not to buy a house, they unshackle themselves from their desks and become free to live how they want.

Naked resignation isn’t just about work, it’s a rejection of a preprogrammed life. But it’s worth noting that the lifestyle today’s young Chinese are turning away from — a willingness to work hard, save harder, and settle into stable family units while always keeping an eye on the future — is what helped fuel the country’s rapid development over the past 40 years. If these values truly no longer speak to today’s young people, we need to think long and hard about what that means for our society and what comes next.

Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Zhang Bo and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: Fu Xiaofan/Sixth Tone)