For Young Chinese, 2023 Is the Year of the ‘Drifter’
Last summer, Wei Ziyi’s life fell apart. The 26-year-old had spent years fighting to climb the ladder of middle-class Chinese life: Moving to the southern metropolis of Shenzhen, scoring a marketing job at a tech company, and working grueling hours month after month to impress his bosses.
“I never said no to any assignments — my performance was one of the best,” Wei tells Sixth Tone.
Then, suddenly, it was all over. As China’s economy slowed amid months of COVID lockdowns, Wei’s employer made a wave of layoffs. Wei lost his job, and struggled to find a new one. Soon after, he had to leave Shenzhen for a cheaper city nearby. He appeared to be on a road to nowhere.
But, one year later, Wei says he’s happier than ever. He has decided to lean into his sense of rootlessness, and embrace a “drifting” lifestyle. He has bought a van, filled it with decks and speakers, and now makes a living by hosting impromptu dance parties at different beach resorts along China’s coastline.
“After I lost my job, I realized the meaning of life isn’t about your job or your income level,” says Wei. “I started to reconsider the values and goals of my life.”
Wei is far from alone. Burned-out after years of COVID lockdowns and sky-high youth unemployment, many young Chinese are dropping out and reinventing themselves as “drifters” — living hand-to-mouth while roaming the country aimlessly.
“Drifting” — or liulang — is the latest expression of the disillusionment spreading among China’s millennials. For years, many have complained of the “involution” of life in the country’s major cities: the sense of ever-intensifying competition, as a rapidly expanding pool of graduates fights over a finite number of well-paid white-collar jobs.
That feeling grew during the pandemic. With the economy slowing amid three years of strict virus-control policies, China’s youth unemployment reached record highs, surpassing 20% last year. Many graduates — giving up hope of finding a good job — began declaring their intention to simply drop out and tang ping, or “lie flat.”
Peter Yang, a Ph.D candidate at the London School of Economics who studies Chinese youth movements, says that the same socioeconomic factors are also leading millennials to embrace alternative lifestyles like drifting.
“As the job market gets increasingly competitive, and prices of consumer goods and property continue to climb, even educated young people are finding the core goals of migration — a stable job, a home in the city, a sense of fulfillment at work or in life — are always just out of reach,” says Yang. “They reject mainstream values and expectations: the tracks that guide and ultimately rule their lives.”
In some ways, drifting appears to be a 2023 version of the lying flat trend. Now that “zero-COVID” restrictions are finally over, young Chinese are choosing to hit the road rather than rest at home. It also coincides with a recent fashion for “special forces tourism,” where broke students travel on shoestring budgets by skipping meals and sleeping on overnight trains.
It’s unclear exactly how many people are drifting, but the Chinese social platform Xiaohongshu is filled with hundreds of viral posts by young people sharing their experiences of abandoning their careers and becoming drifters. Most of them are 20-somethings who lost their jobs during the downturn, or decided to quit to escape oppressive “996” working cultures.
For Wei, the longing to drift had been building for years. At high school, he recalls devouring Han Han’s 2010 road novel “1988: I Want to Talk With the World.” After starting university, he became a hardcore electronic music fan and dreamed of touring the world as a DJ. He often felt like he and his classmates were on autopilot — blindly following a route laid out for them by society.
“Many of my peers don’t know where they’re heading, or what their futures could be like,” says Wei. “The education we received from our families never inspired us to explore those issues.”
But it took a while for him to build up the courage to start down a different path. After losing his job, he spent weeks in a daze. “I don’t have to work today, so what should I do?” he often found himself thinking.
In the end, Wei decided to let the universe decide his fate. He submitted a few songs to a music contest in the southwestern city of Chengdu, and told himself: “If I get through to the next round, I’ll go to Chengdu; if not, I’ll keep looking for a job.”
The result was positive. After his trip to Chengdu, Wei came back energized and ready to start a new life. In December, he set out from south China’s Guangdong province in his van, and he has since drifted all the way to Liaoning province in the far northeast, stopping in 28 coastal cities along the way.
Today, Wei looks every inch a drifter: He has let his hair grow long, and is sporting a shaggy, hippie-ish beard. “I want to see if there are other possibilities for myself, from my appearance to my mentality,” he says.
For others, the decision to start drifting was more abrupt. Li Zi, 25, quit her job at a Beijing advertising firm in January and started traveling soon after. She has spent the past few months drifting through Asia, Africa, and Europe.
“Traveling around the world has been my dream since I was little,” says Li, who spoke with Sixth Tone using a pseudonym for privacy reasons. “It’s not necessary to be all prepared before you start. I just want to set off and take a look.”
Li enjoyed working in the advertising industry, but after three years of relentless overtime, she felt burned out. “What bothered me even more than the physical exhaustion was the mental stress,” she recalls. “The complicated office politics and conflicts within the management team made it impossible to focus just on work.”
Unlike Wei, Li didn’t feel stressed after leaving her job. After a brief trip home to see her parents, she flew straight out to Indonesia. She has since been wandering from country to country, living off the savings she built up while working. Sometimes, she couch surfs to save money and meet new people.
“I have no career plan or a clear idea for my future development,” says Li. “I thought I might get inspired while drifting. I can’t say I’ve found the meaning of life, but I now believe that life is about continually searching for the answer.”
Xu Dapao had a job that many of her peers coveted before she started drifting: a position at a state-owned enterprise in Beijing, with its steady hours and iron-clad job security. But in July 2022, she suddenly decided that she could no longer stand her unchanging, 9 a.m-to-6 p.m. lifestyle.
“The job was too stable for me to stay. I don’t think this kind of life suits me,” the 25-year-old tells Sixth Tone.
The pandemic may have been a factor. Three years ago, Xu graduated during the first wave of lockdowns, and so was denied the opportunity to take a graduation trip with her classmates — a common rite of passage for Chinese students. After starting work, she increasingly came to feel like a caged bird, and eventually she felt she needed to break free.
“At first, I just wanted to relax and stay on the road for a while,” Xu says. “But it became unstoppable, and then I became a so-called drifter.”
Over the past year, Xu has visited around 50 Chinese cities in more than 20 different provinces. Often, she only stays in one city for two or three days, and then moves on. Her next destination is usually selected at random. “My friends call me a ‘special forces tourist,’” she laughs.
On one occasion, she flew straight from Xinjiang in China’s far northwest to the tropical island of Hainan — a 40-degree change in temperature. When she landed in Sanya still wearing her snowshoes, she felt ridiculous, but the restlessness and aimlessness of her travels also appeal to her.
“Life is about going with the flow,” Xu says. “I’ve been through a lot along the way, but I’ve ended up seeing the most beautiful scenery.”
For some young Chinese, drifting has already come to feel natural. Ye Kaikai, 27, tried getting a stable job as a train attendant after college, but gave up after three months. Ever since, she has been bouncing from place to place.
Over the past five years, Ye has lived many different lives. She has pitched tents on the snowy mountains of Tibet, opened an ice cream store in Yunnan province, and traveled the country as a bassist in a rock band. Along the way, she has maintained a steady income by knitting clothes and hand-making jewelry, and selling her wares online.
Ye says she was destined to be a drifter. A child of divorced parents, she was always moving home and changing schools from a young age. “I have formed the habit of changing constantly,” she says. “People around me come and go, and I will always be alone.”
Recently, Ye has been on a pilgrimage in Nepal. While there, she found that she could make good money as a daigou — buying local Nepalese clothes and jewelry, and selling them to customers in China — and so she decided to stay a bit longer to save money for her next journey. She rarely even considers settling down and starting a career. In her view, being happy is all that matters.
“The world is always changing; so am I,” Ye says. “Life is short. It’s better to do something fun, do what you want.”
But for others, their time as drifters may be short-lived. Li is still paying rent on her empty apartment in Beijing, and has accepted that she’ll probably need to return to her old life after one year.
“Without a steady source of income, I cannot drift long-term,” she says.
Xu also knows that drifting is just a temporary escape. Her parents have been supporting her during her travels, but now they’re urging her to settle down. Whenever she thinks about the future, anxiety wells up inside her.
“Most people my age aren’t spending as much time having fun outside as me,” says Xu. “I feel a lot of pressure when I think about that.”
Wei, however, is more optimistic about maintaining his drifting lifestyle. The severance payout he got from his old employer, plus the cash he makes from DJing, is enough to sustain him for now. He’s also trying to find ways to make money as a social media influencer.
“The core of drifting is being able to support your life,” says Wei. “You don’t have to work, but there should be a way to make a living.”
Wei says he hasn’t ruled out the possibility of going back to work one day, but he’s no longer as anxious as he used to be. “I’ve only seen a very, very small part of the world,” he says. “I just want to set my own rhythm.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: Visuals from interviewees and VCG, reedited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)