All work, no play? Chinese millennials opt to ‘lie flat’ instead.

Koki Kataoka/Reuters
Workers at China's biggest retailer, JD.com Inc. in Beijing, on Nov. 9, 2021, prepare for Singles' Day, known as the largest shopping day in the world. A culture of competition and a typical schedule of 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week, is leading to a reexamination of those values by younger workers.

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Competition in China is so legendary it has a name. China’s “996” work culture refers to the expectation that employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. But in recent months, resistance to China’s ultracompetitive culture has surged among young people across social media, centered around online calls for people to “lie flat” or tangping and do the minimum. 

The phenomenon has caught the attention of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has moved aggressively in recent months to lessen the pressures on young people by limiting homework, banning for-profit cram schools, bolstering worker protections, and curbing runaway housing prices. But the pushback may be deeper than any simple policy can address.

Increasingly, burned-out millennials are questioning why they are living the way they do, experts say. “People know this is not what life is about,” says Xiang Biao, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford, “and yet they cannot find a way out.”

Why We Wrote This

Hard work is a pillar of the Chinese value system. But youths are now questioning the premium put on industriousness, exploring an equivalent of America’s “going off grid.”

From his gleaming advertising office in China’s southern city of Guangzhou, Cao Sheng reflects on reaching a peak in his profession – and his Sisyphean battle to stay there.

An account director handling ads for big auto companies, Mr. Cao wistfully recalls earlier years of easy profits and weekends off, when he enjoyed jogging and swimming. Today, with a slew of new competition and young talent flooding the industry, his team toils ever longer hours to eke out a small return.

“We are so tired,” says Mr. Cao, speaking by phone from his office around midnight. “It’s a kind of involution,” he says, using the popular Chinese term neijuan to describe the feeling of being stuck on an accelerating treadmill going nowhere.

Why We Wrote This

Hard work is a pillar of the Chinese value system. But youths are now questioning the premium put on industriousness, exploring an equivalent of America’s “going off grid.”

“I want to escape,” he admits, withholding his real first name to protect his identity.

He’s far from alone in wanting to push that off button. In China today, especially among urban millennials and members of Generation Z, unease is growing over the intense stress and extreme competition of daily life. They call this “involution,” which literally means to coil tightly inward, like the whorls on a shell. It is leading to widespread commiserating, from office suites to university cafeterias to chat rooms – and prompting a backlash.

In recent months, resistance to China’s ultracompetitive culture has surged among young people across social media, centered around online calls for people to “lie flat” or tangping and do the minimum. Other youth are experimenting with alternative lifestyles, such as co-living communities that are springing up around the country, for a more tolerant, laid-back existence – pushing boundaries of what’s socially acceptable in this industrious nation.

Increasingly, burned-out millennials are questioning why they are living this way, experts say. “People know this is not what life is about,” says Xiang Biao, professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford, “and yet they cannot find a way out.”

No 9-to-5 hours here

Competition in China is so legendary it has a name. China’s “996” work culture refers to the expectation that employees work from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. China’s labor law holds that workers who put in more than 44 hours a week should be paid overtime, but enforcement has been lacking.

The pressure starts as early as kindergarten, as children are groomed by their parents to compete for high scores in university entrance exams. The stress contributes to mental health concerns, with a quarter of Chinese adolescents experiencing depression, according to a national mental health report for 2019-2020 cited by the official China Youth Daily.

Unlike their parents’ generation, today’s younger Chinese workers feel their long hours aren’t paying off in terms of higher living standards, especially amid slowing economic growth. “My parents ‘tasted bitterness’ and so do we,” says Mr. Cao, using a Chinese expression for hard work. “But we don’t make any money!”

That’s why a young Chinese man in shorts, a sleeveless shirt, and a baseball cap recently drew attention online. He lies on a couch strumming his guitar and singing about the joys of a life of leisure. “Overworked 996. Hair is gone. Lying flat is the antidote,” croons the office worker-turned-musician, in a video posted under the moniker Zhang Busan. “It’s nice to lie flat; it’s wonderful to lie flat.”

“Lying flat” resonates with many on social media. “All efforts are in vain. Lying flat is the right way,” reads one typical post on the popular social media platform Sina Weibo.

The phenomenon has caught the attention of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has moved aggressively in recent months to lessen the pressures on young people by limiting homework, banning for-profit cram schools, bolstering worker protections, and curbing runaway housing prices.

These steps are part of a broad regulatory campaign aimed at reining in big Chinese private companies – both to curb capitalist excesses and consolidate Mr. Xi’s and the Communist Party’s grip on power. The young people’s complaints about overwork have helped legitimize Mr. Xi’s crackdown, experts say.

“The government needs a new alliance to control these larger corporations’ powers,” says Professor Xiang.

China must avoid both “involution” and “lying flat” as it makes a broad push for “common prosperity,” Mr. Xi stated in a speech published late last month. He said China should “create opportunities for more people to get rich,” but also stressed that hard work was essential and key to a happy life.

Indeed, the government appears nervous about the possibility young people will opt out of the workforce, as China’s rapidly aging population creates an urgent need for more workers. Censors have banned some social media posts praising “lying flat,” including the Zhang Busan song.

Some Chinese corporate leaders have rallied behind Mr. Xi, both by accepting new regulations aimed at reducing pressure on students and workers, and by joining his call for youth to avoid “lying flat.”

“I advise my ‘lying flat’ friends to get up once more and courageously … keep going,” said Yu Minhong, a billionaire and founder of New Oriental Education and Technology Group Inc., in a video posted online this month. The company was hit especially hard by Mr. Xi’s crackdown on for-profit tutoring.

But for many young people, experimenting with a more laid back existence holds strong appeal.   

The search for balance

Jiahong, a graduate student in electrical engineering at the South China University of Technology, is pondering his future and how to maintain a work-life balance. It’s not easy, he admits.

Andy Wong/AP
Students receive flowers from relatives at the end of China's national college entrance examinations, known as the "gaokao," in Beijing, June 10, 2021. Millions of students take part in the high-stakes annual exam.

“I am a relatively ‘lying flat’ person,” he says, asking to withhold his last name for his privacy. “I have a lot of hobbies in my spare time. My classmates spend the vast majority of time studying or doing research.”

Teaching himself computer programming in his free time, he’s applying for jobs at big tech firms such as telecommunications giant Huawei. But he says he avoids what he considers senseless competition, such as writing a 30-page paper when his teacher only asks for five pages.

He also makes time to perform as a standup comedian. “I’m not very great. I am just an amateur,” he says.

Jiahong’s main concern? “If I join a company like Huawei, my own personal time will be squeezed a lot. I won’t be able to control my spare time anymore.”

While such balancing acts may work for some, a more fundamental solution to easing China’s social pressure lies in greater diversity, says Professor Xiang.

After China’s 1949 communist revolution, China developed a strong streak of egalitarianism under Mao Zedong. In contrast with more stratified societies such as India and Brazil, people in China believe they have more opportunities to advance. Yet China’s homogeneity also means people conform to a narrow definition of success, he says.

“You have this very standard criteria for judging people: You must get married. You must have a car. You must have three-bedroom apartments in cities. So everyone’s life goals are very homogeneous,” says Professor Xiang. “It basically means the entire Chinese population is fighting for the same thing.”

What is needed, he says, is “a diversity of life choices.”

The search for community

When Mr. Ren, a tech worker, returned to his hometown in China’s eastern city of Jinan from travels abroad last year, it was not the high-rises and concrete that alienated him, but what felt like programmed conversations with his friends.

“They are all talking about the same thing. ‘OK, I have a nice car. I am getting a nice house,’” says Mr. Ren, who asked to withhold his first name for his privacy.

Mr. Ren didn’t want to “lie flat” – but he wanted to be in a place where he and others could be themselves. After some research, in November 2020 he moved into a small youth community in Dali, a picturesque, lakeside city in southern Yunnan province with a reputation for attracting free spirits.

There, Mr. Ren joined a small subset of other Chinese in their 20s and 30s who are experimenting more boldly with alternative lifestyles that, if allowed to flourish, could lead to greater diversity.

“People are quite chill here, and a lot of people live in the moment,” he says in a video call from Dali. “No one really cares about who you are or your status, or if you work today or not.”

Mr. Ren says Dali’s diverse tribes include New Age believers, hippies, artists, hikers, and digital nomads like himself.

Living on his savings currently, Mr. Ren usually rises midmorning and takes a walk around the community to greet people. He spends much of the day reading or writing in a cafe.

“We talk about interesting stuff,” he says. “We are trying to go back to the natural state of humans just being humans, connecting with people, finding people we trust.”

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