Monday, December 13, 2010

Ant Tribes

It is a terrible time to be a fresh college graduate looking for a job. Even in China.

I'm going to highlight three pieces in the western media on "ant tribes" (蚁族), the term referring to the millions of college-educated young Chinese people looking for work, that I've seen in recent days.

First, an article from The New York Times:

Photo from Newsweek (see below)

BEIJING — Liu Yang, a coal miner’s daughter, arrived in the capital this past summer with a freshly printed diploma from Datong University, $140 in her wallet and an air of invincibility.

Her first taste of reality came later the same day, as she lugged her bags through a ramshackle neighborhood, not far from the Olympic Village, where tens of thousands of other young strivers cram four to a room.

Unable to find a bed and unimpressed by the rabbit warren of slapdash buildings, Ms. Liu scowled as the smell of trash wafted up around her. “Beijing isn’t like this in the movies,” she said.

Often the first from their families to finish even high school, ambitious graduates like Ms. Liu are part of an unprecedented wave of young people all around China who were supposed to move the country’s labor-dependent economy toward a white-collar future. In 1998, when Jiang Zemin, then the president, announced plans to bolster higher education, Chinese universities and colleges produced 830,000 graduates a year. Last May, that number was more than six million and rising.

It is a remarkable achievement, yet for a government fixated on stability such figures are also a cause for concern. The economy, despite its robust growth, does not generate enough good professional jobs to absorb the influx of highly educated young adults. And many of them bear the inflated expectations of their parents, who emptied their bank accounts to buy them the good life that a higher education is presumed to guarantee.

“College essentially provided them with nothing,” said Zhang Ming, a political scientist and vocal critic of China’s education system. “For many young graduates, it’s all about survival. If there was ever an economic crisis, they could be a source of instability."

Read the Entire Article
Here is a short video from the author of the article:

Several of my Chinese friends and colleagues from Xi'an had jobs similar to the ones described in this piece. Salaries of around 1,500RMB (or about $220) a month or less. Shared living quarters in "city villages" (城中村), cramped and inexpensive areas of cities with very low-rent units. Few prospects for upward mobility.

The job situation for college educated youths in China are, in many ways, just as bad as they are for young people in the US.

I'm pretty sure most Americans attribute employment problems to the sluggish US economy. But China's "ant tribes" suggest that the problem is not only because of slow growth. Even booming countries have this problem for young people right now.

This afternoon after work (I'm so thankful to not be part of the US' "ant tribe" right now), I heard a story on NPR about life inside of Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen:
Foxconn, the Taiwanese company that manufactures iPhones and iPads, was in the news this year as more than a dozen factory workers leaped to their deaths. NPR's Melissa Block talks with Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Frederik Balfour, who spent time at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China, about what the company's response has been, and how effective it's been.
You can download the audio of this story here.

The story of suicides at Foxconn's factory in Shenzhen from earlier this year were a symbol of a larger problem in Chinese society. Young people living far away from their families, insanely long hours, and a low tolerance for mistakes are among the many pressures involved with factory life in China. It goes without saying, but the lives of those on the ground floor of the Chinese "economic miracle" are arduous in a way that is impossible for many western people to imagine.

And lastly, Newsweek has a photo gallery of ant tribes in Beijing. The photo above on the New York Times story is from this collection. The photos below are too. All of them are really well done:

It's not easy being a young person looking for work anywhere in the world right now. Expectations across the globe are as high as they've ever been. Young Chinese people want a piece of big city life and the riches millions are beginning to reap. They have an opportunity that their parents did not have. Unfortunately, it seems that higher education, the path most often prescribed to "get ahead," is not a guarantee of financial success, though.


Mark said...

"Ant tribes" are the story du jour of China news right now. Shanghaiist and The China Daily both chimed in today.

Eugene said...

I saw this online magazine for students studying or wanting to study in China. I think this will also help when looking for a job. Hope this helps everyone

China for International Studies Magazine