America Had ‘Quiet Quitting.’ In China, Young People Are ‘Letting It Rot.’
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America Had ‘Quiet Quitting.’ In China, Young People Are ‘Letting It Rot.’

Demoralized by a weak economy and unfulfilling jobs, young Chinese are dropping out, exploring spirituality and becoming more rebellious, presenting new challenges for Beijing

By SHEN LU
Tue, Dec 19, 2023 8:45amGrey Clock 7 min

China’s ruling Communist Party wants the country’s young people to be ambitious, work hard and prepare for adversity.

Li Jiajia just wants to win the lottery.

Demoralised by a weak economy, unfulfilling jobs and a paternalistic state, young Chinese such as Li are looking for pathways out of the carefully scripted lives their elders want for them, putting themselves at odds with the country’s priorities.

After moving to Beijing from her hometown in southeastern China in April, the 24-year-old Li found her new job as a content creator at a technology startup uninspiring. She said she has no desire to climb the corporate ladder, especially when the number of high-paying Chinese tech jobs is shrinking.

The ever-present role of the state in daily life is stultifying, she said. Though she wanted to be a journalist in high school, she gave up when she realised how heavily the government censors the media.

For Li, scratching lottery tickets offers a moment of escapism. PHOTO: GILLES SABRIE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

She says she knows she probably won’t win the lottery. But when she plays, at least she can dream of a better life—most likely abroad.

“I want to leave here and live the life I want,” Li said. “It won’t happen overnight, but for now, the thrill of scratching lottery tickets gives me a little break.”

Since China’s government cracked down on disaffected students in Tiananmen Square in 1989, most young people, who came of age in an era of rapid economic growth and rising affluence, have done what they are supposed to do—and been rewarded for it.

They studied diligently to get into prestigious universities, clocked gruelling hours at fast-growing companies and followed traditional expectations of career and family, riding China’s boom to material success.

Many are still doing that. But a growing number of middle-class urbanites in their 20s and 30s in China have begun to question that trajectory, if not reject it entirely, as prospects of upward mobility fade.

More than two years of harsh government Covid controls left some pondering the role of the Communist Party and other sources of authority in their lives, or even the meaning of life and who they aspire to be—questions many had never contemplated before.

Record youth unemployment that topped 21% this year has further dented confidence in traditional paths to achievement in China. Some, like Li, are also frustrated about other issues, such as violence against women in China or government efforts to prevent people from accessing foreign apps such as Twitter or Instagram.

Many are quitting their jobs and turning to meditation and other forms of spirituality. Some are moving far from China’s megacities to start lives anew in places like Dali, a southwestern city famous within China as a hub for digital nomads and dropouts.

Others are flooding fortune-teller stands and Buddhist temples in mountainous areas, or exploring Chinese and Western philosophers and writers from Laozi to Hermann Hesse. Some are throwing “quitting parties” with banners celebrating their newfound freedom.

“This generation has had a lot of resources invested in them,” said Sara Friedman, professor of anthropology and gender studies at Indiana University, who studies Chinese society.

“They have worked really hard. They have been pushed really hard. And to then say, ‘I’m stepping out of this rat race, I’m opting out,’ is a pretty radical decision to be making.”

Young visitors pray at the Lama Temple in Beijing. PHOTO: GILLES SABRIE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
From ‘lying flat’ to ‘letting it rot

Social-media discussions about temple visits and anxiety—a central preoccupation of many young Chinese—have surged in 2023, according to BigOne Lab, a research firm.

About 34% of surveyed respondents in their mid-20s quit or were considering resigning from jobs in China’s consumer internet sector—a major employer of young people—in the first half of 2023, according to China’s job-seeking and social platform Maimai.

Playing the lottery has become especially trendy for 20- and 30-somethings, whose purchases of lottery tickets helped push sales to $67 billion from January to October, a 53% jump from the previous year and averaging $48 per person in China.

Catchphrases describing the mood have worked their way into everyday discourse. First, in 2020, was the arcane sociological term neijuan, or “involution,” which referred to situations in which people work hard and compete without anyone getting ahead.

That was followed by “touching fish.” The phrase, borrowed from a Chinese idiom, referred to executing small rebellions at work, such as taking long toilet breaks, doing online shopping or reading novels in the office.

Next was “lying flat,” a form of mundane resistance that involves dragging one’s feet at work or dropping out of the workforce altogether. Last year, the phrase “let it rot” spread to describe young people who have completely given up.

A survey conducted by Tsingyan Group, a research firm, last year found that approximately 96% of nearly 6,000 respondents in China were aware of people “lying flat” to various degrees in their vicinity. The concept held more appeal among people ages 26 to 40 than other Chinese, the survey showed.

“It’s a very passive form of resistance,” said Silvia Lindtner, an ethnographer at the University of Michigan. “It’s definitely a very difficult moment, but it could also be seen as a hopeful moment where there is pressure, in some ways, on the leadership.”

Echoes of the 1960s

In some ways the ennui resembles the “quiet quitting” phenomenon of post pandemic America—or, going back further, the rejection of social norms by young people across the Western world in the 1960s.

In those days, two decades of fast economic growth and wider affluence gave young people more choices than previous generations. Many responded by challenging their parents’ way of life.

For many young urbanites in cities such as Beijing, traditional paths to success have become less reliable and less attractive. PHOTO: GILLES SABRIE FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In China, where open protests are rarely possible, young people are now rebelling in other ways.

“Lying flat is a latent resistance to the moral blackmailing of society,” said Amy Yan, a 27-year-old Shenzhen resident who once worked as a buyer for her family’s export business. When the business went bankrupt last year after her parents lost their assets in a financial scam, it reinforced her belief that she should give priority to her spirituality.

Even before the bankruptcy, she had decided that accepting the corporate grind and meeting traditional expectations of marriage and children would interfere with her desire to explore her spirituality.

Following the family crisis, she put her savings of $27,000 into supporting a tiny Taoist ashram she had started with a few fellow practitioners.

Coming into Beijing’s crosshairs

Communist Party leaders have long worried young people could stir unrest, as they did in 1989. The party needs young people to get on board with Beijing’s priorities, not just to keep the economy humming and avoid instability, but to help make China stronger in an era of great-power competition with the U.S.

In a speech at last year’s Communist Party congress, widely quoted in Chinese media, leader Xi Jinping laid out his vision for young people, urging them to have “ideals, courage, a willingness to endure hardship and a dedication to strive” to help “build a modernised socialist country.”

In a 2021 article published in the top party journal Qiushi, he specifically warned against “lying flat.” Discussions of the phenomenon have often triggered censorship online.

If all the young people who had dropped out of China’s labor force and relied financially on their parents were counted, China’s real youth unemployment rate could be as high as 46.5%, according to calculations earlier this year by a Peking University professor.

The Communist Party Youth League—with more than 70 million members—has published commentary on its official WeChat account criticising college graduates for having too much pride. Job seekers “should not refuse to enter the workforce due to the difficulty of finding a job or choose to ‘lie flat’ out of fear of ‘involution,’” the article read.

Greater affluence—but an uncertain future

Until recently, China’s economic progress seemed to be unstoppable, with per-capita incomes surging to around $13,000 in 2022 from less than $1,000 in 2000, according to the World Bank.

But economic growth has slowed. Many economists worry China could get stuck in the “middle-income trap,” in which a country’s progress plateaus before it gets rich. Per-capita incomes in the U.S. were around $76,000 last year.

Academic research shows that social mobility for many groups in China has stalled, meaning it has become harder for people without connections to get ahead.

Many employers that young people gravitated to, including Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance, have been shedding staff amid weak growth and government clampdowns on the private sector. Tech salaries have declined in the past three years, according to Maimai, and opportunities for initial public offering payouts have faded, leaving many who used to work “996” schedules—9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—wondering what the point was.

It is also true that many more middle-class young people—especially those without children and mortgages—can afford to drop out of the rat race today than in previous eras.

Some plan to leave: Net emigration from China, which fell to 125,000 in 2012 as the country’s economy boomed, rebounded to more than 310,000 in the first 11 months of 2023, according to United Nations data.

Others want to stay—but on their own terms.

Huang Xialu quit her high-stress job as a product manager at one of China’s largest video-streaming companies in April, so she could focus more on spiritual retreats. For a long time before that, the 33-year-old said she had struggled with a lack of purpose.

“I had a very urgent sense that if I didn’t listen to my gut and take a break to explore what I truly wanted to do in this world, it would be too late,” she said.

In the months following Huang’s resignation, she traveled to Dali, where she worked on a tarot-reading stand, took a training course in life coaching and learned to make pottery.

To Huang, lying flat is the opposite of being passive—it is a path for taking control of one’s own life when wading through uncertain terrain, she said.

Now she has become a certified life coach, helping individuals who are as confused as she was to find a way forward. Her income is less stable.

But “I haven’t regretted quitting for a second,” she said.



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Few of the U.S.’s philanthropic foundations invest their endowment assets—totalling an estimated US$1.1 trillion—to create positive social and environmental change in addition to high returns, potentially limiting or even counteracting the good such organisations do.

Exactly how few isn’t precisely known. But Bridgespan Social Impact, a subsidiary of the New York-based Bridgespan Group along with the Capricorn Investment Group, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based investment firm founded by Jeff Skoll , the first president of eBay, and the Skoll Foundation, also in Palo Alto, attempted to “get the conservation started,” with a study of 65 foundations with a total of about US$89 billion in assets, according to Mandira Reddy, director at Capricorn Investment Group.

The top-line conclusion: 5% of the primarily U.S.-based foundations surveyed invest their assets for impact. Most surprising is that 92% of these organisations, which have assets ranging from US$11 million to US$16 billion, are active members of impact investing groups, such as the Global Impact Investing Network and Mission Investors Exchange.

“If there’s any pool of capital that is best suited for impact investing, it would be this pool of capital along with family office money,” Reddy says.

The study was also conducted “to draw attention to the opportunity,” she said.

“We want to redefine what philanthropy can achieve. There is massive potential here just given the scale of capital.”

Foundations are required by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to grant 5% of their assets each year to charity; in practice they have granted slightly more in the last 10 years—an average of 7% of their assets, according to Delaware-based FoundationMark, which tracks the investment performance of about 97% of all foundation assets.

The remaining assets of these foundations are invested with the intention of earning the “highest-possible risk-adjusted financial returns,” the report said. Those investments allow these organizations to grant funds often in perpetuity.

Capricorn and Bridgespan argue that more foundations, however, need to “align their capital with their missions,” and that they can do so while still achieving high returns.

“Why wait to distribute resources far into the future when there are numerous urgent issues facing the planet and communities today,” argue the authors of a report on the research, which is titled, “Can Foundation Endowments Achieve Greater Impact.”

The fact most of the foundations surveyed are very familiar with impact investing and yet haven’t taken the leap “highlights the persistently untapped opportunity,” the report said. It details some of the barriers foundations can face in shifting to impact, and how and why to overcome them.

Hurdles to making a shift can include “beginner’s dilemma”—simply not knowing where to start—and a misperception on the part of large foundations that impact investing is “too niche,” offering opportunities that are too small for the amount of capital they need to allocate. Other foundations are too stretched and don’t have the resources to add capabilities for making impact investments, the report said.

One of the biggest concerns is financial performance. Some foundation leaders, for instance, worry impact investments lead to so-called concessionary returns, where a market rate of return is sacrificed to achieve a social or environmental benefit. Those investments exist, but there are also plenty of options that offer financial returns.

The authors make a case for foundations to “go big,” into impact to realize the best outcomes, and to take a portfolio approach, meaning integrating impact principles into how they approach all investments. To make this happen, foundations need to incorporate impact into their investment policy statements, which determine how they allocate assets.

It will be difficult for foundations that want to shift their assets to impact to pull out of investments such as private-equity or venture-capital funds that can have holdings periods of a decade. But with a policy statement in place, a foundation’s investment team can reinvest this long-term capital once it is returned into impact investing options, she says.

“The transition doesn’t happen overnight,” Reddy says. “Even if there is a commitment for an established foundation that is already fully invested, it takes several years to get there.”

The Skoll Foundation, established in 1999, revised its investment policy statement in 2006 to incorporate impact. According to the report, the foundation initially divested of investments that were not in sync with its values, and then gradually, working with Capricorn Investment, began exploring impact opportunities mostly in early-stage companies developing solutions to climate change.

“As the team gained more knowledge and experience in this work, and as more investment opportunities arose, the impact-aligned portfolio expanded across different asset classes, issue areas, and fund managers,” the report said.

As of 2022, 70% of the Skoll Foundation’s assets are in impact investments addressing climate change, inclusive capitalism, health and wellness, and sustainable markets.

Capricorn, which manages US$9 billion for foundations and institutional investors through impact investments, constructs portfolios across asset classes. In private markets, this can include venture, private equity, private credit, real estate, and infrastructure. There are also impact options in the public markets, in both stocks and bonds.

“Across the spectrum there are opportunities available now to do this in an authentic manner while preserving financial goals,” Reddy says.

Of the foundations surveyed, about 15, including Skoll, have 50% or more of their assets invested for impact. Others include the Lora & Martin Kelley Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Russell Family Foundation, and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation.

Though not part of the study, the California Endowment just announced it was going “all in” on impact. The organisation has US$4 billion in assets under management, which likely makes it the largest foundation to undergo the shift, according to Mission Investors Exchange.

Although the researchers looked at a fairly small sample set of foundations, Reddy says it provides data “that is indicative of what the foundation universe” might look like.

“We cannot tell foundations how to invest and that’s not the intent, but we do want to spread the message that it is quite possible to align their assets to impact,” she says. “The idea is that this becomes a boardroom conversation.”

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