8 million Chinese youth are vying for jobs that pay $7,000 a year

  • A record 7.7 million Chinese youths attempted an intense test to secure one of 200,000 government jobs.
  • With unemployment raging, people are fighting for the one in 40 chance to work in the civil service.
  • Despite the low pay, graduates are attracted to these “iron rice” jobs, said China expert Alfred Wu.

More than 7.7 million Chinese youth took tests to secure 200,000 government jobs this year — the highest number ever, per CNBC.

All applicants were fighting for a one in 40 chance to serve the Chinese government. These jobs are considered respectable professions and have been called “iron rice bowls” because of the stability and job security they offer, according to the South China Morning Post.

That staggering figure of eight million — slightly smaller than the population of New York City — was five times the 1.4 million people who took the test in 2021.

The application tests for these civil service jobs are similar in intent and style to the ancient Chinese imperial examinations, a series of tests conducted by the state to find the best candidates to serve in the bureaucracy. These tests were conducted during China’s Han Dynasty and were extremely difficult to pass, according to the Encyclopedia of World History.

Modern civil service tests are not far removed from their ancient iterations. The tests now evaluate candidates on multiple criteria such as their language skills, data analysis, “common sense judgment” and more, according to CNBC.

Despite the tough tests required to secure these jobs, the ranks of civil servants are not high.

CNBC reported that civil servants earned an average of $6,979 a year in 2012. State-run Chinese media outlet News 163, meanwhile, presents a much more dismal figure. It said 60% of public employees earned less than $3,600 a year in 2008 and 2009.

The huge number of applicants for the 2023 round is indicative of a growing demand for stable jobs as China’s unemployment rate soars to new highs.

This comes as Xi Jinping was confirmed for an unprecedented third term as China’s leader on March 10, according to the Guardian.

Public service provides much-needed security in uncertain times

More people are likely to flock to civil service positions now because of China’s deteriorating economy, said China expert Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore.

“In general, civil service jobs could bring benefits for the whole family, such as connections to positions of power,” Wu said. “Parents of some young people may have realized during COVID-19 that their children would be much better off with stable jobs in the public sector, rather than unstable — albeit higher paying — jobs in the private sector.”

Wu said there is a significant wage gap between the public and private sectors, largely due to Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s nationalistic push to prioritize state-owned enterprises over the private sector.

“There is a lack of confidence in the private sector now,” Wu said. “Young people and new graduates will likely be more attracted to stable, ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs because working for the government is a safer bet.”

Rush to secure government jobs comes amid soaring unemployment

In August, China’s national development and reform commission said the youth unemployment rate reached 19.9 percent in July. This meant that one in five jobseekers aged 16 to 24 were unemployed.

That dismal figure prompted Willy Lam, a China expert at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington, DC, to call it China’s “worst labor crisis” in four decades.

“Mass unemployment is a big challenge for the Communist Party,” Lam told CNN in September.

There are many reasons behind this wave of unemployment hitting China. Beijing’s firm commitment to its zero COVID-19 policy has led to a labor market boom. At the same time, Xi’s government in 2021 instituted a sweeping regulatory crackdown on the technology sector — an industry where high-paying positions were once sought after by Chinese job seekers.

At the same time, some Chinese youth are rebelling against the rat race and pushing back against the idea of ​​having to work “9-9-6” hours. The term refers to China’s “hustle” culture, where people work 12 hours a day from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. Alibaba founder Jack Ma once advocated this lifestyle and in 2019 called the 72-hour workweek a “blessing.”

In the summer of 2021, dozens of Chinese millennials said they joined the movement to “lie flat” after watching their friends work themselves to death.

The “lay down” movement evolved in 2022 into a different, more sinister iteration — “let it rot.” This was an impetus among Chinese youth to not work and spend their time in open decay.

For those looking to actively participate in the workforce, public sector jobs continue to be a solid option. In January, some new civil servants told The New York Times that they settled for civil service jobs because they don’t know if they can find better jobs in the private sector.

Amy Liu, who worked as an employee for the Beijing city government for six years, told The Times that she is mostly happy at work. But Liu grew frustrated when her city government bosses roped her in to manage crowds at the city’s COVID-19 testing sites every week for three years.

“My parents think it’s good to be a public servant,” Liu told the Times. “They think I should never leave.”

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