Last month, Chinese internet finance giant Ant Financial — the Alibaba subsidiary best known for its ubiquitous Alipay digital wallet — announced plans for two simultaneous IPOs in the near future: one in Hong Kong, the other in Shanghai. After screenshots of celebratory employee chats leaked on the internet, including some that suggested Ant workers had broken into cheers at the news, netizens coined them the “sounds of financial freedom.” It seemed Ant’s workers had won the startup lottery and were set for life.
As a former Ant employee myself, I took the opportunity to send an old colleague a message congratulating him on his newfound liberty, or at least on finally being able to cash out his stock options on the open market. His reply was almost apathetic: “Just how, specifically, am I financially free now?”
In theory, the answer is something called “Share Economic Rights,” or SERs. An equity sharing program open to Ant’s mid-level employees and above, SERs is a kind of promise. Stick it out until the IPO, it says, and all the overtime and lost weekends will be worth it. While the exact amount depends on an employee’s rank and when they joined, a typical payout could be worth millions of yuan.
Combine that with high pay — mid-level employees at a successful startup like Ant can earn several times the average wage of even China’s largest cities — and the public’s collective fantasy about the tech industry as a freeway to upward social mobility seems attainable. But while jobs at a tech startup offer relatively high salaries, employees from underprivileged or rural backgrounds still find it hard to gain a secure foothold in the city. Unable to rely on parental assistance and working out of some of the country’s biggest and most expensive cities, even high pay isn’t always enough to afford a house, let alone one in a good school district. Nor are the much-discussed stock options as surefire as they seem.
Take SERs, for example. Unlike many Silicon Valley companies, in which equity is awarded starting after an employee’s first full year, Ant’s plan gives an employee 50% of their promised SERs shares only at the end of their first two years on the job, then an additional 25% each year for another two years.
On their webpage for job seekers, Alibaba somewhat romantically uses baijiu grain alcohol as a metaphor for the way their employees’ value changes over time: “After one year, you have a crisp fragrance; after three, this fragrance becomes richer and smoother; and after five, it has reached full maturity.” Yet given how demanding China’s tech industry is, it’s rare for employees to withstand two years at a single company, let alone five.
When I worked at Ant, I and many of my friends kept counters on our desks to tell us how many days had passed since we started the job. When it hit 365, we’d survived a year; 730 days brought partial eligibility for SERs, signalling the two years of crazy overtime had paid off; 1,095 days marked just one year away from “success.”
I never made it to 730. Thus, I tend to think the cheers that supposedly resounded throughout the entire building when Ant announced its plan to go public were not so much sounds of financial freedom as sighs of relief. The survivors of this grueling system — Alibaba’s former CEO Jack Ma was a vocal proponent of the “996” work schedule, in which employees were expected to work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — are finally getting a chance to enjoy some of the fruits of their labor.
But for most of them, the revelry isn’t likely to last. Corporate cultures obsessed with “rejuvenation,” “rivalry,” and “dedication” often result in formal or informal policies to keep workforces young and unbalanced. Some tech companies are bent on keeping the average age of workers under 30; others refuse to hire mid-level employees over 32, or upper-mid-level employees over 35. Fail to reach the appropriate level in time and there’s a chance you’ll be forced out.
Since a mid-level ranking at a major firm often requires five years of experience, at least on paper, many employees join industry giants in their late 20s, only to leave with nowhere else to go by the age of 35. Compared with traditional industries, where a worker is just entering their prime during their mid-30s, tech resembles a career in contact sports, where you have a few years to earn as much as possible before you’re replaced with someone younger and less used-up.
Indeed, tech jobs have a way of wearing workers’ bodies out by expecting them to sacrifice their private lives, sleep, and even health for the company. Alibaba’s self-developed office application, DingTalk, uses functions such as read receipts and emergency notifications to keep employees on standby, 24/7. It’s also notorious for frequent internal transfers. You can’t say for sure if the people you’re cooperating with one day will still be part of your team the next. All employees can do is adhere to the company’s arrangements and “embrace change,” as its internal materials put it. There’s a reason tech workers, when they rallied against overlong hours and extreme work environments last year, named their movement “996.ICU” — a reference to the intensive care unit you could wind up in after a few years on the job.
Elsewhere, as on white-collar social networking app Maimai, employees of China’s tech giants simply want to know what to do when they turn 35 and potentially age out of their jobs. I remember thinking in my early 20s that state-owned enterprises moved too slowly; when I was 27 or 28, I believed foreign companies did not understand the Chinese market and deserved to be defeated by scrappier domestic competitors. But now that I’m in my mid-30s myself, I’m a little envious of my friends in state-owned and foreign firms, who are able to balance work and other spheres of their lives better than me, and who are not as anxious about getting older.
Ironically, the benefits provided by tech companies like Alibaba, Ant, Tencent, or Baidu represent the best conditions in China’s internet industry. We can at least maintain a reliable standard of living, if not full financial freedom. The standards these firms set, however, trickle down to small- and medium-sized internet companies, which sell the same dreams of future wealth and independence, but whose salary and benefits pale by comparison.
In the inspirational stories star tech entrepreneurs tell their disciples, a 35-year-old employee is a prized asset. That’s not how I feel. Many of us are drained, “elderly” middle managers just holding on. Just because we laid the bricks of an incredible wealth boom, doesn’t mean we’ll ever be allowed past the gates.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: sorbetto/Getty Creative/People Visual, re-edit by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)