China’s millennials say ‘no’ to workaholic culture

Competition in China is so mythical 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 occurrence 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 in addition 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 shining 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 method to wire firmly inward, like the whorls on a shell. It is leading to extensive commiserating, from office suites to university cafeterias to chat rooms – and prompting a backlash.

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