Why Chinese youngsters are embracing a philosophy of “slacking-off”

A widening wealth gap is prompting some to reject social norms around work and productivity
Be a happy loser.
Be a happy loser.
Image: REUTERS/Loren Elliott
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Buy a large thermos bottle, and fill it with either Chinese herbal tea or whiskey, as a desk-side companion. Set a reminder on your phone to drink eight glasses of water every day, and leave your workstation every 50 minutes to get that water. Start doing 15 minutes of stretches, or planking, in the office pantry. Set the goal of becoming the person who uses the most toilet paper in the company.

These are some of the tips (link in Chinese) for how to slack off at work provided by Massage Bear, a Chinese blogger whose musings on China’s Twitter-like Weibo have attracted more than half a million followers. Her philosophy of “touching fish” (mō yú), a Chinese phrase synonymous with lazing around at work, has resonated in recent months with many Chinese millennials, increasingly exhausted by society’s ever more intense rat race.

The name references a Chinese proverb that says “muddy waters make it easy to catch fish,”—that is, that it’s possible to use a crisis or period of chaos for personal benefit. It’s a way of thinking that has gained new relevance this year as the coronavirus outbreak—which upturned peoples’ lives in China early in 2020—exacerbated a sense prevalent among the younger generation that it has become increasingly difficult to move up in the world.

While there are more billionaires than ever in China, poorer families have suffered due to a lack of financial support from the government, with stimulus efforts mostly directed at businesses. A widening wealth gap has led many to mourn their increasingly bleak prospects, and prompted some to reject social norms around work and productivity.

“‘Touching fish’ is a passive way of rebelling for the young proletariat like me,” says Massage Bear, who declined to identify her actual name. The blogger says she isn’t trying to get people to shirk work. But she does think people should question why they work excessive hours to impress their boss or compete with colleagues.

“The passionate response from people to my ‘touching fish’ philosophy, essentially, is an expression of disappointment towards the feedback mechanism corporations or society have for working youngsters,” she tells Quartz. “People feel no matter how much work they do, they still get paid the same, while their bosses can change three cars in two years because of the employees’ hard work.”

Deepening anxiety

Chinese millennials are increasingly inclined to embrace a more laissez-faire approach to work, such as Massage Bear’s “touching fish” outlook, amid rising housing prices, caregiving pressures, and difficulty accessing reliable healthcare or quality education. Earlier manifestations of these ideas include “sang,” or mourning culture, and “Buddhist Youth,” which both make a virtue out of lack of motivation or ambition.

It’s a stark contrast to what motivated their parents’ generation: the belief, promoted by the government, that working hard would translate into a better quality of life and accumulation of greater wealth. Billionaire tech mogul Jack Ma, who was born in 1964 and began his career as an English teacher, exemplified this ideal when he said that working “996”—9am to 9pm, six days a week—is “a huge blessing” for employees.

The benefits derived from China’s economic boom, starting in the 1980s, cemented the link between overwork and financial success. Since the 1980s, life has improved for many Chinese people across a number of indicators, including annual GDP per capita increase from below $1,000 in 2000 to over $10,000 last year. Many ordinary Chinese went from counting washing machines or TV sets as their most valuable assets to owning properties and cars, and being able to travel abroad frequently, a lifestyle that few people thought possible three decades ago.

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But for a younger generation, particularly those in the middle class, it has become increasingly difficult to replicate the successes of previous generations, amid China’s slowing economy. For example, China has quite low social mobility, according to the World Economic Forum’s first social mobility index, released in January 2020. The country ranked 45th on the list, which compares the health, education, and work opportunities provided for citizens with different family backgrounds in 82 economies.

And although China has bounced back more quickly than other countries this year, its coronavirus outbreak still led to the country’s first quarterly contraction in GDP in nearly 30 years, and possibly the country’s slowest annual economic growth since the 1970s. These conditions have only exacerbated the concerns of young Chinese graduates about their prospects.

The coming-of-age of “involution”

The intense anxiety felt by younger people, and exacerbated by the pandemic, prompted a wider discussion on a once niche academic concept: neijuan. Translated as “involution,” the anthropological term was first applied to agriculture, and has come to describe conditions in which a society ceases to progress, and instead starts to stagnate internally. Increased output and competition intensify but yield no clear results or innovative, technological breakthroughs.

Neijuan has become a hot topic on the Chinese internet and in media reports this year as a word that “captures urban China’s unhappiness.” Complaints of their work becoming too “involuted”—more competitive with little corresponding rewards—are as likely to be discussed on Weibo by white-collar workers as food delivery drivers.

One example cited to illustrate the phenomenon is a notice in a Wuhan marketplace that forbade employment of female workers (link in Chinese) over the age of 45, and male workers over 50, citing the need to “upgrade” its services. In an “involuted” society, demand for work is so high that age and experience become liabilities. In another example, a student at China’s prestigious Tsinghua University was pictured typing on his laptop while riding on a bike. The pressure to stand out at this elite school has become so intense that even commuting has become an opportunity to maximize output.

Shanghai-based Clarisse Zhang is one of the youngsters who feels they have missed out on a golden period, when simply working hard could mean a ticket to a better life. The coder, who asked to use a pseudonym, has become an enthusiastic convert to the touching fish philosophy. She now arrives at work after 10am, and leaves the office at 11.30 to have lunch, which could last over three hours. “Sometimes I put fake appointments on my calendar in case anyone asks for me,” she told Quartz. She will also go have a nap or read books in her car, which is parked near the office, when she doesn’t feel like working.

“‘The ‘touching fish’ trend is tied up closely with intensifying involution in China,” says Zhang, who works at a listed Chinese internet company. “People who have the capacity to compete are using all their strength to squeeze out rivals, while people like me, who don’t have that kind of energy, chose to lie down and be happy losers,” she says.

Such stagnation might sound familiar to young people in developed economies where stalled growth has limited the opportunities that their parents enjoyed. Japan, for example, consistently ranks among cities with the longest working hours globally. The culture of overwork is so prevalent that there is a term for it: “karoshi”—which refers to death caused by excessive working hours. But the country has been grappling with a slowdown in GDP growth and low inflation after stock market and property bubbles burst in the early 90s. As a result, many discouraged Japanese youngsters have lost interest in a career-driven life, or even in building families, which they are unsure they can support financially.

“Behind the trending of ‘involution’ and ‘touching fish,’ is youngsters’ sharp awareness of the broad social system and competition mechanism that they once ignored, and also a reflection of their discontent towards the intense work culture such as ‘996,’” said an analysis (link in Chinese) published on the WeChat account of Chinese publisher Huazhong University of Science & Technology Press.

Massage Bear says that behind the appeal of slacking off, she sees many young people “finding ways to progress in life” without betting everything on their day jobs. “Lots of my friends are taking exams to get qualifications in areas such as law or finance, after they get off work,” she says.

The Huazhong analysis echoes this view. “Essentially, people’s focus is not on finding tricks allowing them to slack off. Rather, they still want to find opportunities for self-development amid the cracks of rigid social structures.”