A record of more than one in five young Chinese are out of work, their career ambitions at least temporarily derailed by a depressed job market as the economy struggles to regain momentum after its long bout with COVID-19.

Adult children returning to the nest is by no means unique to China, and many Chinese do live in extended families. But by some measures, young Chinese are enduring the country’s worst job market in generations, and many are coping by taking refuge with their parents.

The urban unemployment rate for the 16-to-24 age group reached a record 21.3% in June. In July, the government stopped publishing age-specific data, prompting speculation the politically sensitive numbers had shot up even higher.

If “full-time adult children” were counted as unemployed, the jobless rate would be more than double the official rate of almost 20 percent in March, Zhang Dandan, a Peking University economics professor, said in an op-ed in the Chinese business magazine Caixin in July.

That would be a more accurate assessment of the unemployment crisis, said Zhang, who declined an interview request from AP. Her article was later removed from one of Peking University’s WeChat accounts, where it had been shared.

ANXIETY, DISAPPOINTMENT AND CONFUSION

The job drought is a ticklish problem for the ruling Communist Party, which is overseeing a sluggish post-pandemic economic recovery worsened by a downturn in the property market.

The economy grew at a 6.3% pace in April-June compared to the same period a year earlier, when parts of China were under draconian COVID-19 lockdowns. Exports have been sinking as other major economies slow.

China’s overall urban unemployment rate is officially 5.3%, but young people have been disproportionately affected. Over the past two years, Beijing has cracked down on industries such as high tech and education that usually hire young college graduates. That led to mass layoffs and shutdowns in both sectors.

An abundance of good jobs has been a mainstay of the social contract between the ruling party and young Chinese, Xiang said. A shortage of decent jobs undermines the Communist Party’s assertion that the country’s strong economy proves China’s political model is superior to Western democracies.

There’s no evidence of significant political unrest over the unemployment problem, but late last year, protests against the government’s stringent “zero-COVID” policies sprouted across the country in the most direct challenge to the party in over 30 years. An official report in November noted that the growing “anxiety, disappointment and confusion generated by college students” could shake confidence in China’s economic future.

Resorting to the usual Communist Party exhortations to toughen up, in June Chinese President Xi Jinping urged young people to “eat bitterness” – or endure hardship – “to create a better China.” Earlier this year, the Communist Youth League urged college graduates to “roll up their sleeves” and take up blue-collar jobs.

CHANGING EXPECTATIONS

Instead of eating bitterness, Xiang said, “full-time adult children” are taking advantage of the wealth accumulated by their parents to sit out the job drought, rest up and prepare for exams for relatively stable government jobs or for postgraduate studies.

The trend also reflects changing attitudes among parents who typically would push their children to succeed financially and socially but now increasingly value their emotional well-being, especially when they see their them facing practical difficulties, said Mu Zheng, an assistant professor of sociology at the National University of Singapore.

Having acquired a degree of financial security after decades of sustained economic growth, many parents now have the wherewithal to provide more support to their grown children.

Many “full-time adult children” are documenting their lives and domestic duties on social media. Some take on clearly defined roles such as cleaning, cooking and running errands for fixed monthly allowances.

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