Millions of young Chinese are about to experience “the worst year in history to graduate”

China’s crowded job market.
China’s crowded job market.
Image: Getty Images / Hong Wu
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About 7 million students will graduate from Chinese universities and vocational schools in July, the most in the history of the People’s Republic. But many of them won’t find jobs. Half of China’s undergraduate seniors—more than the number of annual graduates in the US—were still unemployed (paywall) this month, according to the China Development Research Foundation.

This isn’t the first time that China’s young graduates, whose numbers have mushroomed over the past decade, have struggled in the labor market. In 2009, the term “ant tribe” came into fashion to describe the toil of industrious but little-paid graduates living in crowded Chinese cities. The difference for this generation is that there are not yet signs the government will embark on a spending binge (paywall) to prop up the economy as it did after the financial crisis. Meanwhile, China’s economy is not only growing more slowly, but it hasn’t moved away from a reliance on manufacturing, leaving many young Chinese who earned degrees in business and other white-collar industries high and dry.

Thus, Chinese bloggers have dubbed 2013 the “worst year in history to graduate” (registration required). The phrase returns over 100,000 posts on Chinese social media service Sina Weibo. Chinese internet users post anecdotes of disappointing job fairs and attempts at inspiration on social media. (“A lot of VIPs started off in jobs they didn’t like,” one blogger writes, citing Donald Trump’s career start of collecting bottle caps.) Some universities have started requiring students have jobs before getting their diplomas, giving rise to a small underground industry of fake employment contracts.

Officials are worried too. In addition to this year’s graduates, about 200,000 from last year are still looking for employment. In Guangdong, one of China’s wealthiest provinces, an education minister said the employment situation for grads is worse now than in 2008 (link in Chinese). Last month, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, oversaw a directive telling government agencies, schools, and state-owned enterprises to hire more graduates (link in Chinese). Li promised to lower administrative barriers to encourage the creation of more small and medium-sized private businesses. The government also announced it would give a one-time subsidy of 1,000 yuan (link in Chinese), or $163 to recent graduates from poor families.

It remains to be seen whether these measures will help in the months ahead. But a kind of social contract between the Chinese public and the government hinges on continued economic opportunity. A lost generation of disaffected, educated youth, those that are most likely to criticize the government, could be a scary thing for China’s leaders.