China’s unemployed find a new job title: ‘full-time child’

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Tian Yinan was browsing social media last fall when she stumbled upon a video diary of an intriguing new type of job.

In the post, a young woman started her day in a plush pink bathrobe, eating leisurely from a takeout container of spicy hot pot. She read in the afternoons, and for dinner snacked on a red dragon fruit and shelled sunflower seeds while watching TV. She called herself a “full-time daughter.”

Tian found herself envying such a simple life. She was a college student majoring in tourism management and interning at a hotel in the city of Guangzhou in southern China. The work was rote, the pay low, and she didn’t like living alone or away from her family.

She forwarded the video to her mother, asking if she could also become a full-time daughter after graduation. Her mother agreed.

“It was then that I decided after my internship ended, I wouldn’t ever work again, at least not full time,” the 23-year-old said.

As China’s economy deteriorates and job opportunities dry up, the concept of becoming a professional son or daughter, which started circulating on a popular Chinese internet forum in December, has taken off.

Shoppers cross Nanjing East Road in Shanghai.

People cross Nanjing East Road, the shopping district in Shanghai. China’s economy is under duress from weak consumer spending, high debt levels and a worsening real estate crisis.

(NurPhoto / Getty Images)

“Increasingly, when young people look around, there is almost no one they can rely on except their parents,” said Yunxiang Yan, a UCLA anthropology professor, noting that bonds have been strengthening between parents and children as family sizes shrink.

“It’s more complicated than an economic downturn, but the economic downturn is definitely the trigger,” Yan said.

It’s unclear how many people are taking part in the “full time children” phenomenon, though it’s become a prevalent and divisive topic online, with related hashtags receiving more than 40 million views on China’s Instagram-like app Xiaohongshu.

The trend is both welcome and worrisome for the world’s second-largest economy. As unemployment among younger adults has climbed to record highs, some Chinese media have stressed the “work” aspect of the arrangement, with the expectation that young people are spending time and energy caring for their parents rather than simply idling at home.

But whether the practice endures could have broader ramifications for China’s economy, whose recovery after strict COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns is already under duress from weak consumer spending, high debt levels and a worsening real estate crisis.

“If it becomes a structural problem, then it will have a very important cost in terms of reduced productivity,” said Alicia Garcia-Herrero, chief economist for Asia Pacific at Natixis, a French investment bank. “It may still end up creating a permanent effect because these youth working at home may actually no longer find any other job.”

Tian, who moved back in with her family in the coastal city of Zhuhai earlier this year, now spends her time travel blogging and looking after her 15-year-old sister. While her mother is supportive, her father, who harbors more traditional views, has a harder time accepting her status as a “full-time child.”

“He thinks I should be more like him and follow the life path of other Chinese parents: Get a good job after graduation, go to work, find a boyfriend, get married, that kind of thing,” she said.

But she said he acknowledges that finding a stable, well-paid job has become more difficult for China’s recent graduates. Her friends have passed along some local job opportunities, but Tian and her parents all balked at the idea of her working for $400 to $550 per month.

“It’s impossible to accept that I studied for so long, graduated from university and would start working full-time, just to make that little money,” she said.

A woman tries out a fall outfit at a booth at a shopping mall in Beijing.

A woman tries out an outfit at a Beijing shopping mall. As China’s economy deteriorates, younger generations are finding it harder to justify long workdays and personal sacrifice for the waning promise of a better life.

(Andy Wong / Associated Press)

A few years ago, many Chinese workers were unquestioning in their missions to advance their careers and move up the socioeconomic ladder. Punishing work hours at the country’s top technology firms were commonly known as “996,” shorthand for 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week.

But the pandemic, which coincided with government crackdowns on industries such as tech, education and real estate, have slowed hiring at some of the nation’s biggest recruiters of recent graduates. China’s unemployment rate for 16-to-24-year-olds in urban areas reached a record high of 21.3% in June, before the government stopped publishing the monthly figures.

As a result, younger generations are finding it harder to justify long workdays and personal sacrifice for the waning promise of a better life. Some are forgoing office jobs to try out different lifestyles, prioritizing quality of life over traditional success. Others are coping with the economic slowdown in other ways, such as buying lottery tickets or visiting temples to pray for employment.

Beijing resident Ye Feng became a “full-time child” three months ago after he quit his job in public relations at a financial firm. The 27-year-old had already started working fewer hours as the industry suffered and his interest dwindled. He was tired of the onerous social obligations, and had developed neck pain and stomach infections from the heavy workload.

Now, he can’t imagine ever going back to an office job. He sometimes helps his mother liaise with merchants for the food court that she operates, but said he wants to use most of his time on rest, self-improvement and travel. Eventually, he might try his hand in entrepreneurship.

“Originally I was making money to make money. Now I think of money as a tool to achieve my dreams,” Ye said. “Money is important, but it’s not my whole life.”

Online critics have decried “full-time children” as a euphemism for freeloading off one’s parents, which has traditionally been known by another name, kenlao — literally translated as “gnawing on the elderly.”

“So-called ‘full-time children’ is just turning your normal duties into a job. If the day comes when your parents can’t provide your salary, will you still be willing to care for them?” one Xiaohongshu user commented. “This is an excuse for good-for-nothing children. Only by adapting to society can you become a person of real value,” another wrote.

Others see the trend as an extension of tangping, or “lying flat,” used to describe disillusioned youth choosing to give up on the rat race and do nothing.

As his government tries to reverse the economic slowdown, President Xi Jinping has encouraged China’s youth to “eat bitterness” and embrace hard work, particularly in rural, underdeveloped areas. But part of the reason unemployment has soared this year is because recent graduates are opting to turn down opportunities that they consider too strenuous or poorly paid, waiting for something better.

“If indeed they and their parents lost hope, they would likely retrain or figure something out more long term,” said Fang Xu, a continuing lecturer at UC Berkeley. “Because of decades of emotional and monetary investment on their children’s education and future, the parents refuse to give up too.”

Students attend a job fair for graduates at Zhengzhou University in China.

Students attend a job fair for graduates at Zhengzhou University in Henan province. China’s unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds in urban areas hit 21.3% in June, before the government stopped publishing monthly figures.

(VCG via Getty Images)

Shi Yi, 24, received several job offers after obtaining a finance degree in 2020 but decided to pursue a master’s degree in marketing, a field she found more appealing. Since graduating this year, she’s had only a handful of interviews and one offer with a salary far lower than she’d expected.

Living with her parents in Nantong, a city in China’s eastern Jiangsu province, Shi said she will try her luck again during the busier fall recruitment period, and likely expand her search into other industries.

“Before graduation, I didn’t think too much about getting money from my parents. Getting money after graduating feels a little embarrassing,” said Shi, who considers herself a “full-time child” as she job-hunts.

Most online bloggers documenting their days as “full-time children” are like Shi, living at home because they currently can’t find the kind of job they want. However, some older workers have seen the appeal of spending more time with family too.

Zhang Jiayi, a 31-year-old living with her parents in Hangzhou, considers her role as “full-time daughter” as more hands-on.

This year, she decided to accept her parents’ offer of a $1,100 monthly salary — what they would pay a housekeeper or nanny — to shutter her struggling fabrics business and instead stay home to take care of them, her two children and the housework.

Now, the family starts the day with morning exercises. They buy groceries, make lunch and spend the afternoon going to trendy restaurants and attractions around Hangzhou. She said her job is to bring joy to her parents, who have come to rely on her.

“Coming home to be a ‘full-time child,’ I don’t want it to be forced. I hope it’s because everyone needs me, and I just happen to be willing to do it,” she said. “I think this is a positive thing. It’s a choice.”

Traditionally, offspring have been expected to support their elders and demonstrate filial piety above all else. But after decades of China’s one-child policy, parents have become more willing to pour substantial time and money into their only children. That changing nature of families has also enabled the acceptance of adult children returning home, sociologists said, well before the parents need elder care.

“The reason this trend has been rising is because of this shifting value of children,” said Mu Zheng, an assistant professor of sociology and anthropology at the National University of Singapore. “Increasingly, it is seen that more older parents are more accepting of providing this downward support.”

Tian, the blogger in Zhuhai, assumes there are those who consider her to be “lying flat,” or “gnawing on” her parents. But she brings in money through her social media assignments, she said, and being able to spend her time and cash on her younger sister alleviates pressure on the family.

Still, she doesn’t recommend the lifestyle for everyone.

“If everyone stays home, then if I go out to eat, then there wouldn’t be any servers. If I go out to take pictures, the scenic spots wouldn’t have any workers. For overall society, that’s not so good,” Tian said with a laugh.

“For me, I just feel work is too limiting, I felt terrible every day, so I stopped going,” she said. “But for lots of people, they go to work and are also very happy.”

Yang is a Times staff writer and Shen a special correspondent.

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