Younger Chinese are spurning factory jobs that power the economy

SHENZHEN, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Growing up in a small village in China, Julian Zhu only saw his father a few times a year when he went on vacation from his grueling textile job in southern Guangdong province.

For his father’s generation, factory work was a way out of rural poverty. For Zhu, and millions of other young Chinese, low wages, long exhausting hours and the risk of injury are no longer sacrifices worth making.

“After a while, the work makes you numb,” said the 32-year-old, who quit manufacturing a few years ago and now makes a living by selling milk and delivering scooters to a supermarket in Shenzhen, a southern Chinese province. . “I couldn’t stand the repetition.”

The rejection of factory work by Zhu and other Chinese in the 20’s and 30’s is contributing to the growing number of jobs that are hurting manufacturers in China, which produces a third of the world’s food.

Factory bosses say they will create more, and faster, with young blood replacing older ones. But providing the high wages and good working environment that young Chinese people want will hurt their competitive advantage.

And small manufacturers say big investments in machinery technology are unaffordable or unwise as rising inflation and borrowing reduce demand in China’s capital markets.

More than 80% of China’s manufacturers have experienced job losses ranging from hundreds to thousands of workers this year, equivalent to 10% to 30% of their workforce, a survey by CIIC Consulting showed. China’s Ministry of Education has predicted a shortage of about 30 million manufacturing workers by 2025, more than the population of Australia.

On paper, there is no shortage of workers: about 18% of Chinese aged 16-24 are unemployed. This year alone, a group of 10.8 million graduates entered the job market which, in addition to production, is very limited. China’s economy, plagued by COVID-19 restrictions, a sluggish housing market and crackdowns on technology and other private industries, is experiencing its slowest growth in decades.

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Klaus Zenkel, chairman of the European Chamber of Commerce in South China, moved to the region nearly two decades ago, when university graduates were less than one-tenth of this year’s figures and the economy was 15 times smaller on the local dollar. US. words. He runs a factory in Shenzhen with about 50 employees that makes magnetically shielded rooms used by hospitals for MRI scans and other procedures.

Zenkel said China’s economic boom in recent years has raised the aspirations of younger generations, who are now finding their jobs less interesting.

“If you are a young person, it is easy to do this work, climb ladders, do mechanical work, handle tools and so on, but most of those who put us in are between the ages of 50 and 60,” he said. “Soon we need to get more young people, but it’s very difficult. Applicants will look quickly and say ‘no thanks, that’s not for me’.”

The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s top economic watchdog, and the education and human resources ministries did not respond to requests for comment.


Manufacturers say they have three main ways to deal with labor market imbalances: providing benefits to increase wages; invest more in automation; or jump on the wave of integration that has been sparked by the growing conflict between China and the West and go to cheap food places like Vietnam or India.

But all those decisions are difficult to achieve.

Liu, who runs a factory in the electronics industry, has invested in high-tech equipment with good digital measurements. He said his older employees struggle to keep up with speedy equipment, or to read what’s on the display.

Liu, who like other industry officials declined to give his full name to speak freely about China’s economic slowdown, said he tried to lure young workers with a 5% higher wage but was simply ignored.

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“It’s like Charlie Chaplin,” said Liu, describing the work of his workers, referring to the scene in the film “Modern Times” of 1936, about the concerns of industrial workers in the US during the Great Depression. The protagonist, the Little Tramp, played by Chaplin, fails to secure the bolts on the conveyor belt.

Chinese policy makers have emphasized mechanization and industrialization as a solution to the aging population.

The country of 1.4 billion people, which is on the verge of population decline, accounted for half of the robots installed in 2021, up to 44% per year, the International Federation of Robotics said.

But the machine has its limitations.

Dotty, a general manager at a stainless steel factory in Foshan city, has a machine for handling and cleaning at the workplace, but says that local maintenance for some products can be very expensive. However, young workers are essential to keep jobs moving.

“Our products are very heavy and we need people to transfer them from one process to another. It’s a very difficult job in hot temperatures and we have difficulty renting these processes,” he said.

Brett, a factory manager for video game controllers and keyboards in Dongguan, said orders have halved in recent months, and that many of his colleagues are moving to Vietnam and Thailand.

“They’re just thinking about how to survive right now,” he said, adding that he expects to lay off 15% of his 200 employees even though he still needs a little muscle on his roster.


The competitiveness of China’s export-oriented manufacturing industry has been based on decades of government subsidies for manufacturing and low labor costs.

The preservation of that situation now conflicts with the desires of a generation of well-educated Chinese people to live a more comfortable life than the sleep-work-sleep day-to-day grind for tomorrow’s food that their parents endured.

Instead of settling for jobs below their educational level, 4.6 million Chinese applied for higher education this year. There are 6,000 applications for every civil service job, state media reported this month.

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Many young Chinese are also living a low-key lifestyle known as “sleeping flats”, doing just enough to get by and resist China Inc’s rat race.

Economists say market forces could force China’s youth and manufacturers to cut back on demand.

“The situation of youth unemployment needs to be very bad before the crisis is resolved,” said Zhiwu Chen, an economics professor at the University of Hong Kong.

By 2025, he said, there won’t be a significant shortage of workers “because the demand will drop completely.”


Zhu’s first job was turning fake diamonds into wristwatches. He later worked in a factory, making tin boxes for mooncakes, a traditional Chinese bakery.

The colleagues told sad stories about injuries at work caused by sharp metals.

Realizing that he could avoid living his father’s life again, he gave up.

Now through trading and shipping, he earns at least 10,000 yuan ($1,421.04) a month, depending on how many hours he logs. This is almost twice the average factory income, although some of the difference is related to accommodation, as is the case with most industries. they have their own dorms.

“It’s a tough job. It’s dangerous on busy roads, wind and rain, but for young people, it’s better than factories,” said Zhu. “You relax.”

Xiaojing, 27, now earns 5,000 to 6,000 yuan a month as a masseuse in an upscale area of ​​Shenzhen after three years at a printing factory where she made 4,000 yuan a month.

“All my friends my age left the factory,” he said, and added that it would be a big job for them to come back.

“If he paid 8,000 before overtime, sure.”

($1 = 7.0371 yuan Chinese renminbi)

Edited by Marius Zaharia and David Crawshaw

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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