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2022-08-19 11:11:51 Voices

Last month, a popular Chinese blogger shared the story behind his recent weight gain. After years as a disciplined diner, avoiding oily, salty foods in favor of more nutritious fare, he had started eating what he wanted, when he wanted it.

In his post, he described his earlier eating habits as a product of the values that were instilled in him and millions of other Chinese from childhood. It wasn’t just about thrift, but also about keeping in good shape and being ready for whatever the future had in store. More recently, however, he had come to view this outlook as untenable. After a series of unexpected incidents had occurred in his life and in the lives of his friends — everything from injuries to bankruptcy and unemployment — he began to wonder what the point of preparing for the future was when even the present could be so unpredictable.

He’s far from the only person to feel this way. Youth unemployment is nearing 20%. The tech giants that drove so much of China’s private sector growth over the last decade are considering layoffs. And real estate, once a reliable asset, is teetering on the edge. Trapped between COVID-19 lockdowns and a slowing economy, many Chinese are questioning the purpose of preparing for a future that — for potentially the first time in their lives — feels less bright than the present.

Not everyone is ready to throw caution to the wind, of course. If anything, the desire for safety and stability is stronger than ever. Uncertainty has fueled a rise in the number of people taking the civil service exam. After decades of chasing the high salaries and relative freedom of the private sector, Chinese once again crave the stability of the “iron rice bowl”: a lifetime job at a government-affiliated institution.

But civil service jobs are few and far between. In 2021, one post drew over 1,000 applicants. For the vast majority, a stable future feels out of reach.

What’s left is a vague sense of disillusionment, one that has driven a dramatic shift away from preparing for the future and toward living in the present.

This shift did not begin with the pandemic. Even prior to COVID-19, China’s economy was struggling to find a new growth engine capable of maintaining the staggering growth of the 1990s and 2000s. And there were signs that young Chinese were increasingly unwilling to make the kind of total commitment to work that private companies had grown accustomed to. A 2018 LinkedIn survey, for example, found that the average respondent born after 1995 quit their first job after just seven months.

This shift is also reflected in people’s apathy toward marriage and childbirth. Family formation has always been the most significant long-term promise — and investment — in an individual’s life. In a survey of Chinese families conducted by the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics last year, nearly 80% of respondents expressed no interest in having children.

I’ve found similar attitudes in my own research on Chinese fertility intentions. As one married but childless interviewee told me, “Taking care of myself is difficult enough.” A growing number of Chinese people now see the nuclear family, once a symbol of stability, as a source of risk that they would rather avoid.

In a 2014 interview with Chinese outlet Jiemian, anthropologist Xiang Biao famously described the Chinese people’s striving attitudes over the past decades of rapid economic growth as a kind of “suspension.” “Philosophically, we do not conduct in-depth reflection about the present,” he explained. “Everything we do now is aimed at transcending the present and achieving a specific future goal. The present has no meaning in and of itself. Instead, it is solely a means.”

Ironically, the embrace of short-term thinking underway among young Chinese could be read as a kind of liberation from this suspended state — a return to the present. With nothing solid to look forward to, people want to enjoy themselves while they can.

The embrace of short-term thinking underway among young Chinese could be read as a kind of liberation from this suspended state.

Will this short-termism become a long-term belief? I doubt it. As with so many of other recent trends — from “naked resignations” to “lying flat” — short-term thinking is itself a kind of a privilege, one limited to those people still have ample time and resources to enjoy their life. Ultimately, the majority will continue to be subject to the gravitational pull of economic necessity. Only 29% of the 10.76 million students who graduated from university this year had found jobs by the end of May. For all the complaints about corporate work hours, a recent survey found that 90% of respondents born in the 2000s were willing to work overtime.

Almost every living generation of Chinese can claim its share of turmoil and trauma. In a sense, this makes today’s twenty-somethings even more unique. As perhaps the first generation in the past two centuries with no firsthand experience of war, hunger, or economic contraction in their childhood and adolescence, they are largely unprepared for the current malaise. After a lifetime of continuous development and annual GDP growth rates of 6% or higher, what do you do when growth drops to 0.4%, as it did in the second quarter of 2022?

In a recent interview with Chinese media, Richard Koo, an influential economist known for his research on both Japan's “lost decade” and the 2008 global financial crisis, warned that China needed to prepare for a slow-growth future. “During periods of rapid economic growth, everything should be devoted to ensuring development is quick and high-quality,” he said. “Because that growth will undoubtedly slow down in five or 10 years.”

What happens when suspension becomes free fall? The 19th century French sociologist Emile Durkheim called the phenomenon of once-unifying beliefs being questioned and abandoned, but not yet replaced with a new consensus, “anomie.” Its consequence, according to Durkheim, is that people become disoriented, frustrated, and lack a sense of purpose and direction. China’s not at that point yet. But as time passes and the risk of recession grows, more and more people may start to wonder: What, if anything, comes next?

Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: jaap-willem kleijwegt/VCG)