China’s slowing economy has left millions of young people in fierce competition for an ever-shrinking number of jobs and facing an increasingly uncertain future.
Official data released this month showed one in five young people in Chinese cities were out of work in July, more than three times the national average and the highest since January 2018.
Nearly 11 million graduates entered China’s sluggish job market this summer, with economic growth of 0.4% in the second quarter, the weakest in two years.
Zhao Yuting, 22, told AFP companies were reluctant to hire as the economy cooled – and experienced workers were now jostling for entry-level jobs, coming out of green hands like her.
Since graduating in July, she has submitted her CV to dozens of companies.
Only a handful called her back for an interview, only to turn her down saying she lacked experience.
Armed with an English degree, Zhao thought she could make a living as a tutor until she found a full-time job.
But recent crackdowns on the tech and education sectors, which typically absorb new talent, have wiped out those jobs.
“I’ve been looking for a job for two or three months, but the chances of getting hired seem slim,” said Zhao, who was forced to move back in with her parents while she looked for work.
“The longer it takes, the greater the pressure.”
Analysts blame the slowing economy crippled by Covid lockdowns, as well as the large cohort entering the workforce during graduation season in July and August, for the dim prospects facing China’s young people.
Official data does not track rural youth unemployment, and the actual jobless population could be more than double the official number, estimated Zhuang Bo, an economist at research group TS Lombard.
Blue-collar workers are also struggling to find work as growth in manufacturing and construction slows.
“The reality is more serious than the data show,” said Ho-fung Hung, an expert in Chinese political economy at Johns Hopkins University.
“If the problem persists without remedy, it will easily spread social disorder.”
At a job fair in the tech hub of Shenzhen, long lines of anxious parents and fresh graduates waited for a chance to chat with recruiters.
But headhunters at the fair said they chose graduates from top universities because only a few positions were available.
“My goal was to work in Shenzhen, in China’s Silicon Valley,” Luo Wen, a computer science graduate, told AFP.
“But after more than four months of research, I am ready to work even in a smaller town, for less pay.”
Graduates who managed to find jobs this year were offered wages 12% lower on average than last year, according to data from online recruitment firm Zhaopin.
And while some job seekers scaled back their ambitions, others bided their time to further their education.
Experts have warned this could lead to “degree inflation”, where employers demand higher and higher qualifications for jobs that don’t necessarily require them.
Analysts have blamed government policies that have seen a rapid rise in student numbers over the past decade as the economy has failed to accommodate more knowledge workers.
“The pandemic and the shutdowns have only made the problem worse,” Hung said.
The government has pledged to support jobs by providing small business tax relief and more start-up funding.
Premier Li Keqiang said China’s jobs crisis was “complex and serious” and called on state-owned enterprises to step up efforts to stabilize the economy.
And as private sector growth slows, job seekers have flocked to cram schools to prepare for the highly competitive civil service exams.
A record two million people registered for the national civil service exam last fall.
A recent survey by 51job, one of China’s largest job search services, found that 40% of respondents preferred stable state jobs to corporate careers.
But for Zhao, who can’t afford further education and doesn’t have the connections to get a government job, there are few options left.
“I feel like I can’t see the future,” she said.
“I haven’t made any progress. It’s miserable.”