Chinese millennials say “no” to workaholic culture

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The competition in China is so legendary that it has a name. The Chinese “996” work culture refers to the expectation that employees work from 9:00 to 21:00, six days a week. But in recent months, resistance to China’s ultra-competitive culture has increased among young people via social media, centering on online appeals to people to “lie down” or drumming and do the minimum.

The phenomenon has attracted the attention of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who in recent months has taken aggressive steps to reduce pressure on young people by limiting homework, banning restricted schools for profit, strengthening worker protections and curbing runaway house prices. But pushback could go deeper than any simple politics can deal with.

Increasingly, exhausted millennials are wondering why they’re living the way they do, experts say. “People know that’s not the point of life,” says Xiang Biao, a professor of social anthropology at Oxford University, “yet they can’t find a way out.”

Why did we write this?

Hard work is a pillar of the Chinese value system, but now young people question the prize given to industriousness, exploring an equivalent of the American “offline”.

From his brilliant advertising office in Guangzhou city in southern China, Cao Sheng reflects on reaching the pinnacle of his profession and his Sisyphean battle to stay there.

An account director who manages ads for major auto companies, Mr. Cao remembers with nostalgia the early years of easy profits and free weekends, when he enjoyed jogging and swimming. Today, with a slew of new competitors and young talent flooding the industry, his team is working more and more hours to get a small return.

“We are so tired,” says Mr. Cao, speaking on the phone from his office around midnight. “It’s kind of an involution,” he says, using the popular Chinese term neijuan to describe the feeling of being stuck on an accelerating treadmill that is going nowhere.

Why did we write this?

Hard work is a pillar of the Chinese value system, but now young people question the prize given to industriousness, exploring an equivalent of the American “offline”.

“I want to escape,” he admits, keeping his real name to protect his identity.

He’s not the only one who wants to press that button. In China today, especially among urban millennials and Generation Z members, unease about the intense stress and extreme competition of everyday life is growing. They call this “involution,” which literally means wrapping itself tightly inward, like the swirls of a shell. It’s leading to widespread commiseration, from office suites to college canteens to chat rooms – and it’s causing a backlash.

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