Burnt Out and On Edge, China’s Coders Hunt Options Abroad
An algorithm engineer at an internet company, Zhou Yan is among the many programmers preparing to leave China for a way out. Though he just turned 32 and hasn’t fallen victim yet to layoffs, the unending long hours and the industry’s implicit upper age limit of 35 mandates that he make alternative plans immediately.
Moreover, he is married to a coworker in an industry still harsh on women when it comes to promotions. With little to look forward to in China, the couple recently agreed on a plan to move to the U.S. in search of a brighter future.
They spend every evening after work brushing up on algorithm problem sets and studying English, and can’t wait for the imminent new chapter of their life overseas.
Another programmer Chen Xiao jokes: “Once I get laid off, I guess I’ll just resort to delivering food.” Though Chen often kids around with his colleagues, he knows deep down that nobody would really consider such a drastic career move.
He also knows what’s coming. Having turned 34, he’s just one year away from the treacherous age of “optimization” — the euphemism Chinese companies use to trim the fat from their payrolls.
According to a 2021 report that surveyed 550,000 programmers, those under the age of 35 accounted for over 90% of the community in China. But as they approach that very age, more and more tech employees are beginning to feel the squeeze.
Over the last few years, the looming danger of being “optimized away” at 35 has motivated some to uproot everything and continue their careers abroad.
High among the preferred destinations is Singapore, where many technology companies have begun setting up headquarters or development centers following the rise of the Web 3.0 concept as an increasingly decentralized version of the internet.
Together with Silicon Valley in the U.S., the island city-state is a hot new destination for many older programmers, along with northern European countries like Sweden, which are known to offer good wages, benefits, and much friendlier workplaces compared to companies in China.
For many programmers in China, a myriad of options are viable abroad, but it doesn’t always guarantee success.
In May, Shen Yu, a tech worker in her thirties, landed a job in research and development at a financial company in Singapore.
She worked for over a decade in the domestic tech industry, where she began bashing out code in her younger days, before getting promoted to product manager.
Around 2013, she switched to research and development to ride the wave of China’s big mobile internet boom. Though she eventually rose to a minor executive position, she found herself even more swamped due to the grueling 996 schedule — 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — and never-ending meetings.
Amid a company crisis last year, the businesses she oversaw suddenly shut down. Some of her colleagues found themselves redundant, while others jumped ship, or returned to their hometowns.
Her department was disintegrating, and the superior whom she had always admired chose to completely quit the industry. Surrounded by voices claiming that the industry had “peaked,” she began to reconsider what work meant to her.
“I want a greater work-life balance now,” she says. When she was young, she was fine tethering herself to the job and being constantly on standby. But now that she’s acquired a certain degree of financial security, she wants more time to herself. “I feel like maybe a change of environment could help me attain that goal,” she says.
If programmers are in a position to consider relocating overseas, it’s in part because they are in high demand everywhere. “The skills required to work in IT are the same all throughout the world. So long as you’ve mastered them, you’ll never have trouble finding a job,” explains Tan Xiaoke, an IT worker who previously worked in Japan.
What’s more, unlike their Chinese counterparts, many positions overseas don’t have China’s unspoken age caps. “Literally all across the globe, southeast Asia, northern Europe, North America, as well as Japan and South Korea need more programmers,” says Tan.
Tan is an older millennial. When he was 28, a friend working in Japan talked him into trying his own luck there. He set off after studying Japanese for only a month.
With a master’s degree, Tan originally worked in wireless R&D at a prominent mobile phone company in China. After four years, he increasingly felt the position did not make full use of his expertise. The projects he worked on were tedious, and there was little potential for promotion.
And even that sliver of potential mandated getting on the boss’ good side. Performance numbers were crucial in such a big company. Perceived differences in performance meant that one employee could earn over 100,000 yuan ($15,000) more than his coworker of the same seniority.
In such a fiercely competitive environment where team leaders were directly tasked to evaluate subordinates, interpersonal relationships became incredibly intense. “A friendly boss will delegate tasks that let you get a better performance rating,” says Tan, adding that such a servile attitude was beneath him.
After moving to Japan, he discovered that performance evaluations were much fairer and that coworkers were more casual and relaxed in each other’s company.
In terms of stress, he says, “It’s maybe 70-75% as intense as a Chinese internet company.” In China, he generally had to work overtime until past 9 p.m. But in Japan — whether at major companies like Fujitsu or Mitsubishi or smaller start-ups — most work nine-hour shifts and are free to leave at 7 p.m. sharp.
There’s certainly no existential dread over turning 35 either. Among those interviewed alongside him was a 37-year-old Chinese man. “Even if you’re 37, you’re still considered young in Japan,” he says. In his team, there were even a few programmers in their fifties.
In 2020, Shen Yu’s husband relocated to Singapore for work. The next year, she quit her job to join him and lived with him for a year before they decided to settle there.
Shen got both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at one of China’s leading universities and her resume also includes the names of leading internet companies. On arriving in Singapore, it didn’t take her long to find work.
However, instead of choosing the offer with the highest salary, she ultimately abandoned the internet industry altogether in favor of an R&D job at a bank. And though it pays her much less than what she would normally earn in China, Shen says: “Now that I work a standard 9 to 5 schedule, I’m actually very happy about it.”
But there are issues. “It’s hard to find a decent apartment,” Shen sighs. The place she currently rents with her husband is 50 square meters, which they only managed to snag thanks to a friend and repeated daily calls to a broker.
Rent is no cheaper than in any of China’s top-tier cities, costing the equivalent of more than 10,000 yuan. Something more comfortable would obviously cost much more. Add to that more than 10,000 yuan in living expenses per month.
More importantly, though competent Chinese programmers can secure a job overseas, the truly decent jobs abroad are still few and far between.
On arriving in Japan, Tan spent more than a month frantically searching for work, but got an offer at a small gaming company. “I haven’t studied in Japan and did not encounter any projects outsourced from Japan at my previous job, so I don’t stand out,” he explains.
At the time, he only found entry-level positions similar to the one he had in China. In retrospect, he feels it perhaps wasn’t the smartest move.
He also knew but a few simple Japanese phrases, and relied heavily on coding that didn’t demand major communication skills: a basic set of common terminology is enough for daily conversations on the job.
But truly assimilating with Japanese society and forming social relations is considerably harder. He keenly felt the invisible boundaries that prevent “outsiders” from entering Japanese coworkers’ inner circles.
“At events after work, they usually don’t invite us (Chinese staff),” says Tan. Other than buying groceries or ordering food, he finds it hard to hold serious conversations. He’s quite extroverted: back in China, he enjoyed organizing soccer matches on the weekend. But his Japanese colleagues rarely took him up on the invite.
“For people who come here on their own, it’s hard to date Japanese,” says Tan. In his opinion, there are only two types of people who survive a move to Japan: those who have studied there or have mastered the language through other means, and those who moved there with their families.
In the short term, relocating overseas can help dispel the anxieties tech workers feel about being laid off due to their age, as well as alleviating their workload. But in the long term, as they attempt to compete with locals, Chinese employees find themselves at a significant disadvantage when it comes to promotions and personal development.
Sang Long left Singapore, which is relatively close to China and whose visas are easier for Chinese people to obtain, in favor of Silicon Valley in the U.S. He feels that though many tech companies have set up branches or even headquarters in Singapore, there were few R&D opportunities.
The talent pool in Singapore is too small for truly influential companies. He also mentions that Chinese people in Singapore can, at best, get regional leadership roles — very rarely are they able to ascend to greater heights.
In countries where the culture differs greatly from China’s, Tan says, only an extremely exceptional minority of Chinese people are able to get to managerial roles. This isn’t a problem for programmers for whom moving abroad is a deliberate decision to pursue a less grueling, ambitious career path — but those who are devoted to their careers need to think more carefully.
At 36, Liu Yang is a self-claimed “geriatric” programmer, who works at a start-up. Over the past few years, his colleagues and friends have moved abroad one after the other. He’s stayed put so far, largely because he feels he has a bigger chance of making a difference at home.
Tan has since moved back from Japan to his northwestern home city of Xi’an after two years. He decided he was better suited to life back in China. In Japan, aside from a few short trips to different cities, he spent most of his time commuting between work and his rental apartment, and had begun to find life a bit monotonous.
“Programmers, who spend their lives in front of a computer screen, find it harder to integrate with Japanese society than expats who open restaurants or work in the service industry,” he says.
Taking into account his capabilities, his career path, and long-term prospects, he now feels that home is an all-round better choice. His former colleagues who stayed put at his old Chinese company have made decent progress careerwise; some of them in Xi’an now earn more than one million yuan a year.
“If you can make that kind of money at home, there’s really not that much incentive to go elsewhere,” he says.
Now he’s married and has a child. “The new industry buzzword is zhuanjing texin: setting yourself apart from the pack by specializing in a fresh niche. I’ve got my eye on a few mid-size companies who are doing just that. I’ll stay put for a few years and regroup before I make another big move,” he says.
(Zhou Yan, Chen Xiao, Shen Yu, Tan Xiaoke, and Liu Yang are pseudonyms.)
Reporter: Wan Qi.
A version of this article originally appeared in Shenran Caijing. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and published with permission.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Zhi Yu and Apurva.
(Header image: VCG)