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    Work in Progress: The Changing Face of China’s Migrant Workforce

    A new monitoring report on the scale, flow, and distribution of this vital workforce offers insight into the desires and demands of different generations.
    May 21, 2024#labor#population

    China’s migrant workers are on average older, better educated, and prefer to stick closer to home compared with 16 years ago, with many shifting away from the construction industry toward the service sector, according to the latest official data.

    The annual Migrant Worker Monitoring Research Report, which the National Bureau of Statistics, or NBS, has published since 2009, tracks the scale, flow, and distribution of this vital section of the country’s workforce. It defines a migrant worker as an individual with rural hukou, or household registration, who is engaged in non-agricultural industries locally or has worked outside their hometown for longer than six months.

    The report’s 2023 edition shows the number of migrant workers nationwide has continued to grow, although at a slower rate, and sheds fresh light on the evolving profile of the modern migrant worker. One noticeable trend is that far fewer are now engaged in construction, traditionally a core industry.

    Migrant workers in China are largely employed across six industries: manufacturing and construction, both regarded as secondary industries; and wholesale and retail, accommodation and catering, transportation and warehousing, and postal services, all regarded as tertiary industries.

    While the construction industry has topped the list in terms of migrant workers’ average monthly earnings for the past decade, it accounted for just 15.4% of this workforce last year, down from 22.3% in 2014, indicating that more than 15 million laborers have left the industry in that time.

    This change is closely associated with the reduction in property development projects in recent years. According to NBS, real estate investments in China totaled 11.09 trillion yuan ($1.6 trillion) in 2023, a decrease of 9.6% year over year. As a result, the number of migrant workers in the construction industry last year dropped by 6.5 million compared with 2022.

    In addition, recently introduced regulations restricting the age of personnel in “high-risk professions” mean that older migrant workers are no longer eligible for many jobs in the construction industry. In 2019, several provincial regions issued orders prohibiting men over 60 and women over 50 from working as laborers on building sites. In reality, the age limit is even lower. China Youth Daily reported in 2022 that many of the construction jobs advertised on an online recruitment platform for migrant workers specified that male applicants must be younger than 55 years old.

    Meanwhile, a new generation is breaking the stereotypical impression of migrant workers as “low literacy, low skilled manual laborers.” This group is displaying different preferences for employment than their predecessors.

    The modern migrant worker is significantly more educated than previous generations, with 15.8% holding at least one qualification from a vocational college or university last year, more than double the 7.3% recorded in 2014. With this has come a sizable shift toward tertiary industries.

    In 2023, the tertiary sector employed 53.8% of all migrant workers in China. Those leaving the secondary sector have mostly transitioned to this sector, with the number of workers in residential services, repairs, and other services reaching 37.79 million last year, up by nearly 1 million compared with a decade ago.

    Younger migrant workers are choosing jobs based on not only how much money they can earn but also the “value for money,” according to Farmers’ Daily. Labor-intensive professions have become less desirable, and there is a growing demand for more flexible working hours and conditions, it reported.

    In 2008, more than half of the people living in the Chinese countryside left their homes to earn a living in developed urban areas, with many moving as far away as the opposite end of the country. Yet, significantly fewer are willing to do so today. The latest NBS data shows that 61.8% of migrant workers chose to work in their native provinces in 2023.

    Several factors have fueled this phenomenon, one being the industrial upgrade that has occurred in eastern coastal regions, which has seen a considerable part of China’s manufacturing industry relocate to central and western regions, the main occupational sources for migrant workers. This has created employment opportunities closer to home, removing the need to travel. In addition, these regions have seen rapid developments in urbanization, improving the living standards.

    Aging is another key factor. The average age of a migrant worker is now 43.1, with 30% of the total workforce over 50 years old, according to the NBS report. Statistics suggest that the older the worker, the less willing they are to leave home. In 2023, the average age of those working in their native area was 46.6, while for those working away it was 38.9.

    Regardless of changes in demographics, degrees, and desires, China’s almost 300 million migrant workers remain an essential pillar supporting urban development across the nation.

    Reported by Zhang Yanyin, Wei Yao, and Chen Liangxian.

    A version of this article originally appeared in The Paper. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translators: Eunice Ouyang; graphic designer: Luo Yahan; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.