Trend Alert: China’s Gen Z Slackers

Trend Alert introduces you to the latest trends that are impacting the daily lives of 16-24s.

In China, where normal life has largely resumed post-COVID, young workers aren’t pleased to be back in the office experiencing the realities of employment in the country’s fast-paced work culture. In response, they’re protesting in typically Gen Z ways, from spending their days slacking off, playing on their phone, to starting a number of viral social media trends to make their feelings known. Could this be a sign of things to come as offices around the world reopen and CEOs who still believe in traditional corporate culture try to resume old practices?

Earlier this year, the South China Morning Post reported on a trend called “touching fish,” named after a local proverb. They explained that young people were rebelling against the punishing work ethic expected by Chinese businesses in a variety of ways, including hiding in the toilets, refusing to work overtime, reading books or playing with their phones at work, and just being lazy in general. The report claimed that this behaviour stemmed from dissatisfaction with their salaries and a growing expectation that work should be fulfilling and rewarding – an attitude that previous generations of young Chinese workers weren’t known for.

There have also been several social media trends that have given Chinese Gen Z and Millennial workers an outlet to express their unhappiness with their employers’ expectations. For example, a former factory worker’s statement that “lying flat is justice” was celebrated as an anti-consumerist manifesto, to the extent that mentions of “lying flat” (“tangping” in Mandarin) are now restricted on the Chinese internet. The term has come to mean more than literally taking a rest, but to reject societal expectations more broadly. This could include anything from dropping out of university to choosing not to have children or get married.

Another innovative way that young workers have protested the Chinese work culture was the 996 ICU trend on developer platform GitHub in 2019. Many of the biggest Chinese businesses, including Huawei and Alibaba, expect employees to follow a 996 schedule, working from 9am to 9pm six days a week. Developers created a website 996.icu, stating that working 996 would put them in the ICU – or at the very least, lead to serious health problems. The site trended on GitHub, receiving hundreds of thousands of star ratings, and within weeks, the site was blocked by most of the major Chinese internet browsers.

The hard work and commitment expected by Chinese employers may be more extreme than in western countries like the US and UK, but there are parallels between the priorities of Gen Z in China and the west. For example, research by Dynamic Signal found that work/life balance and personal well-being were the most important factors determining where they want to work, even ahead of their salary and the reputation of the company. This is a generation that has learned at a surprisingly young age that a large pay packet doesn’t mean much if you don’t have time to enjoy spending it.

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