China's younger generation: lifestyle counts as much as work

China's younger generation is leading a shift away from a job-is-everything work ethic in favor of 'naked resignation' – leaving one job before finding another in order to pursue personal interests.

By , Staff writer

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    Job seekers scanned employment information at a job fair for college graduates in Kunming, Yunnan Province, this spring. Until 1994, graduates were assigned jobs by the government and were expected to stay in them for life.
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Early this year Song Hao, a stocky, bearded video editor in his late 20s, began to feel that the job he'd been doing for nearly four years was boring, leading nowhere, and certainly not worth the overtime he was made to do every evening.

"I wanted to take a break and use the time to do something I really liked, even if it didn't earn me any money," Mr. Song said one recent evening over a cappuccino in a Beijing cafe.

So he quit.

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He had no other job lined up, or any immediate plans to find one. He did, though, have enough savings to keep him going for a few months and a burning desire to make a short movie with some friends. And that's what he did. Three months later he went back to work, at a different company.

Such a casual attitude to the workplace would have been unthinkable in China just five years ago. But in an emerging social trend, growing numbers of young people "are more concerned with their own feelings and their happiness and less worried about salary and status," says Hong Xiangyang, founder of the Sunward employment agency in Shanghai.

"These 'little emperors' live for themselves," Mr. Hong adds, using the familiar epithet for products of China's one-child policy. "They find it hard to bow to the demands of the group" and are less willing to put up with a job they don't like just because they are supposed to.

Hong first noticed the phenomenon early last year, he says, as more and more clients began coming to him in search of a job having already left the one they had been doing. So he started studying what has become known as "naked resignation" because people quit without being covered by the security of another job.

"I reckon about 80 percent of big-city dwellers between 22 and 35 have thought about naked resignation and 22 percent have done it," estimates Hong. "And half of them have been in the workforce for less than three years."

Song had worked at the same job for four years and had a project in mind when he quit. He regards himself as extremely responsible compared with younger colleagues.

"Today's young people think completely differently from their parents," adds Li Changan, professor of labor economics at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. "If they are not happy in their job, they'll quit as soon as they can."

Until 1994, Chinese college graduates were assigned a job by the government and expected to stay in it for the rest of their lives. Blue-collar kids, as often as not, took the jobs their mothers and fathers retired from.

Even the freedom to choose an employer, when it was introduced, did not encourage everyone to do so in a country accustomed to an "iron rice bowl" – cradle-to-grave security – from the state.

Today's entrants into the workforce, though, are much more demanding, and they can afford to be, says Tian Zhimin, who heads a boutique employment agency in Beijing. "As China's economy grows, enterprises need to hire more talent and more different kinds of talent," he says. "There are a lot of job opportunities."

That suits young women with an adventurous streak such as Sally Zhou, who says she wants "to try everything new" and believes that her generation, freed from the sorts of shortages that bedeviled her parents and grandparents, "should experience anything they want to."

Ms. Zhou walked out of a job at a Beijing public relations firm last July, she says, because she was moved from a department she liked to one she did not without being consulted. "I'm not a quitter," she says, "but I didn't like the way they didn't talk to me about the transfer."

So she went off to Inner Mongolia for a couple of months, picking up a temporary gig by chance as a tour guide, before returning to Beijing.

Zhou speaks English and German and says she is confident she will find another job soon. But she admits she is a little worried about the impact on her career of having quit impetuously.

Chen Lin, another 20-something woman with a habit of following her instincts, is becoming a serial "naked resigner." She quit a job as a receptionist at a five-star Beijing hotel after only two months because she was fed up with sudden shift changes. It took her only two weeks to find another job.

Nine months later she walked out of that job, too, complaining that her employer "thinks I should be proud to do overtime without pay."

Until recently, Chinese employees would have put up with that. But the youngest yuppies today regard such demands as unreasonable and are not prepared to work long hours for comparatively low salaries. "If they feel under heavy pressure at work, they leave," says Professor Li.

"As living standards in China improve, this will get more and more common," says Hong, who points to similarities between the current generation of young Chinese and the '60s generation in America. "Young people will listen more to their hearts."

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