China's Ant Tribe: millions of unemployed college grads

Despite China's fast-growing economy, many Chinese college grads are struggling to find jobs or scraping by on meager salaries. Beijing worries that this new group - the "Ant Tribe" - could pose a threat to political stability.

By , Staff Writer

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    Deng Kun has given up hope of finding the sort of job in Biomedical Engineering that he studied for at university. If he can’t get into grad school, he says, he’ll settle for a job in marketing.
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Back when Deng Kun was in college, studying biomedical engineering, he imagined himself working for a company like GE by now, helping to design state-of-the-art medical equipment.

Instead, he spends a lot of his time in the cramped and chilly room he shares with a friend in the outskirts of Beijing, playing video games or trying to line up a job as a salesman.

Mr. Deng moved to the capital when he graduated, he says, because “I thought there would be a lot of opportunities here.” He soon found out, though, that “it is not very easy to find a job as an engineer.”

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Deng is a member of the “Ant Tribe,” as sociologist Lian Si has dubbed the swelling ranks of underemployed or underpaid Chinese university graduates frustrated by their failure to fulfill their ambitions.

"Ants are smart” Dr. Lian explains. “They are relatively weak individually but if you don’t pay attention to them they can cause a big disaster. There is a Chinese saying that a 10,000 mile dam can be breached by a swarm of ants.”

That threat has not escaped the attention of the government. Earlier this year the State Council, China’s cabinet, issued a notice warning that the financial crisis had “increased the pressure on graduate employment” and urging ministerial and regional authorities to “put college graduates at the top of their employment agenda.”

Bottleneck grows each year

Lian, whose recent book “The Ant Tribe” drew attention to the phenomenon, estimates that there are upwards of three million graduates in China without jobs, or doing work for which they are overqualified.

The problem has been building since 2003, when a record number of students graduated four years after a dramatic expansion of further education in 1999.

China's student population has continued to skyrocket since then, outpacing the ability of even China’s fast-growing economy to absorb them.

Six million students graduated last summer, up sixfold from a decade ago, and two million of them are still looking for a proper job, competing with still-unemployed graduates from earlier years.

"There are lots of people going for each job,” complains Deng. “That means that companies raise the bar.” GE, for example, told him he would need a Masters degree for an entry-level position, he says.

Plan B: Join the Army

Students have got the message, and many are doing what they can to avoid the commercial job market. The number of college graduates who enlisted in the military this year rose more than threefold from 2008 figures, according to Defense Ministry figures. More than a million graduates took this year’s Civil Service exam – nearly twice as many as in 2006.

At the same time, fewer high school students this year took the gaokao, the college entrance exam, thus turning their backs on the magic key that Chinese young people have always prized for unlocking the door to prosperity.

Even those graduates who have found jobs to suit them are finding life a lot harder than they had expected.

Bent over a 75-cent plate of noodles in a crowded restaurant one recent Saturday lunchtime, Zhang Haijuan is one of them. Like Deng, she too studied biomedical engineering. But instead of rushing to Beijing upon graduation four years ago, she stayed in the province of Henan, where she had studied, and did a boring job in a yeast factory for a couple of years.

That gave her the work experience she needed to land the job she has now, as a quality controller in a Beijing factory making medicines, Zhang says.

But she still earns only 2,500 RMB ($370) a month, which is no more than the average urban worker earns in China regardless of their academic achievements. The only place she can afford to live is a tiny bed-sit in Tangjialing, a warren of dorm-style buildings on the very edge of Beijing where an estimated 50,000 young people like Ms. Zhang have found cheap lodgings.

She buys only what she really needs, she says, so as to be able to afford food and clothes and medicine for her parents, peasant farmers who never dreamed of going to university themselves but put all three of their children through college.

Her parents “would never say anything about my salary,” Zhang says. “But I sometimes talk with my friends about whether it’s been worth it; we made so much effort in college and now I earn less than some of my classmates who didn’t go higher than middle school. That frustrates me.”

Running on determination

Most of the ‘Ant Tribe” in Beijing are like Zhang, says researcher Lian – single twenty-somethings from the provinces, with degrees from minor universities but ambitions in the major leagues.

“The big gap between the cities and the countryside means that talent and resources all go to the big cities,” Lian explains. “The graduates do not want to go back; they prefer a single bed in Beijing to a house in their hometown.”

Most of them, like Deng – confident he will make a career in marketing, or get into grad school, or both – and Zhang, who has just moved into a more comfortable bed-sit, closer to the bus stop, seem optimistic about the future, says Lian.

“But if their dreams collapse and they cannot find a good explanation for their failure it could be dangerous,” he predicts. “They were taught that knowledge could change their fate, but they find that is not true. If they can’t even find a job, they may oppose society.”

For the time being, Lian says, he sees no great threat to social stability, and the government is moving to head off any danger. “But the future depends on how society guides this group,” he adds. “If society treats them badly…how will they pay society back? Paying attention to the “Ant Tribe” is paying attention to society’s future.”

For her part, Zhang Haijuan is focusing only on her own future. “This is the way things are, we have to face facts,” she says bluntly about her parsimonious lifestyle.m “I feel that since I have worked so hard, all I can do now is to work even harder and learn more skills for a better future,” she adds. “I have no other option.”

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