Want to know how Americas Gen Zers are really doing? Hop on board a quick 14-hour flight, and take a look at whats happening in China. Young adults there are dealing with an extreme version of the same issue plaguing Americas TikTok generation: Finding a well-paying job that meets their expectations. The journey for a stable and well-paying white-collar job has become something of a dull take on a medieval quest, a hiring process that takes months and multiple rounds of interviews only for multiple rejections. A bigger problem than the dystopian job application process, though, is the disconnect between what young people want and what their leaders are willing to give them. The result in China? A youth unemployment crisis of epic proportions, where one in five people between 16 to 24 years old is without work, according to the National Bureau of Statistics via Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal.
A lot of the problem has to do with the grunt work of blue-collar manufacturing. Government officials in both countries are desperately pushing young employees to take on these jobs, only to find themselves in a similar bind; whether its the stigma surrounding these jobs or the lack of change in salary or working conditions, Gen Z isnt looking at the offer all that keenly. The gripe for government officials, though, is that they depend on workers in these blue-collar roles to keep, you know, things like buildings from falling apart, produce or food on the table, and providing an increasingly consumer driven culture with those shoes, goodies, or whatever TikTok says they need next.
It has even bigger ramifications for the world economy, since China became the factory of the world when it entered the World Trade Organization in the late 1990s. Older millennials and Gen Xers might look back to a time where most toys and consumer products had Made in the U.S.A. written on them in small font. But Gen Z has lived in a world where nearly everything says Made in China. Now, some Chinese Gen Zers seem to be saying its another countrys turn to make stuff.
Taking a closer look at the economic data, unemployment rates skyrocketed to a record 20.4% for young adults in China, while it stands at just 6.5% in America. Experts told the Journal that a growing number of Chinas Gen Zers are leaving school and looking for high-paying and high-skill jobs, and the country simply doesnt have enough positions to meet the demand. It leaves these young adults in a Waiting for Godot situation, looking for jobs that simply arent coming while some lower their job or salary expectations still to be met with fierce competition. As Samuel Beckett once said, its awful.
The old schedule in Chinas tech sector used to be known as 996, or working from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm six days a week. Woof. But during 2021, workers won a case that declared employees demanding such intense labor to be illegal. The pendulum has swung the other way a bit, as lying flat gained traction as a term and practice in China, where employees put in just the work needed to get the job done, nothing more or less and certainly no 996. Something similar happened across the globe, as young employees in the U.S. acted their wage, or quiet quit. Both countries experience a widely spread reported burnout over the past couple of years; in China, it gained another phraseinvolution, as many young workers reported a disengaging from hustle culture.
I think of lying flat as a silent rebellion against a culture of overpressure, Zak Dychtwald, CEO of consultancy Young China Group, told Fortunes Grady McGregor. Chinese and American Gen Zers are both trying to re-invent work, emphasizing the importance of work-life balance and good pay, but the job market and economy isnt meeting their needs.
Projected by PEW to be the most educated generation, Gen Z is leaving school only to meet an economy that doesnt always have the jobs they expected and a government seeking to fill service and manufacturing roles. Facing the heat, Chinese officials have tried to encourage companies to hire more graduates, incentivize workers to take said jobs with ads about stable and meaningful service jobs, and sent a hopeful message to new grads: Lower your expectations.
Getting a job in the age of lowered expectations
Back in the states, the youth isnt faring all that much better. The government wants the same thing for Christmasmore blue-collar workers, as the countrys aging workforce has many older workers in the sector retiring. To make matters more difficult, theres already a shortage in the industry. Over the past couple of years, jobs that require being in-person and that dont offer high wages have had a harder time keeping employees, according to the Chamber of Commerce. That is to say, without good pay, many young and old simply quit to look for something that will keep them afloat amid high inflation.
Bidens platform was in part that he was an average Joe coming from middle-class roots, and elected to help middle-class workers. Part of his promised plan was to bolster blue-collar work, something that hes recently found some gains in despite pervasive difficulty in hiring for said growing jobs. Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because of the choices we made in the last two years. This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives, Biden asserted in Februarys state of the union.
Graduating from degrees that come with a high price tag only to deal with immense student debt and economic volatility adds to Gen Zs desire for good pay in America. Applications for full-time technical jobs decreased by 47% from 10 applicants per job before the pandemic to 5.3 applications today, according to data from student jobs platform Handshake, provided to Fortune. But with Biden on the job to create a blue-collar boom, the cup runneth over when it comes to positions being offered, standing at over 45,000 technical job listings, according to Handshake. Thats a 7% increase in technical jobs during the past year compared to 2021 to 2022.
While there might be a reason to shun jobs that arent paying enough for the labor put in, blue-collar jobs are shifting a bit, and the nature of the white-collar jobs in the U.S. is changing a whole lot. Blue-collar jobs can provide stable and sufficient wages at times; data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the median salary for carpenters was almost $50,000 and well into the $70,000s for farmers. Its in part an option that hasnt been encouraged as of late, as the pipeline in both China and America is to go to school and then more school and then get a job (that I never could find, per the Silhouettes). The assumptions regarding blue-collar work are baked into this country that depends on said labor, and its a mess that needs untangling.
We have this stigma with working with your hands like thats supposed to mean you have less of a brain. Thats absolutely not the case, co-founder of the National Center for Craftsmanship, Robb Sommerfeld told Axios.
As the U.S. gets increasingly anxious about its not-so-strong manufacturing skills (as evidenced by its many labor shortages in the past couple of years), Biden has begun to invest in manufacturing, taking a page from Chinas book by pouring money into expanding the industry, and also announcing plans to make degreeless well-paying jobs.
And these days, the jobs that young graduates are so desperately seeking are going through rounds of layoffs after a technology boom and effectively disappearing. These jobs were valued increasingly for their flexibility and good pay, something that doesnt ring as true now, as companies usher people back in and entry-level jobs dont offer wages that compete with the cost of living.
Whats more, the sector is going through volatility when it comes to Artificial Intelligence. While manufacturing has been affected by A.I. already, Handshake points out that theres some safety there. Trade/skilled jobs have the potential of being relatively safe from the advancements made in A.I., a spokesperson explained, citing the Microsoft CTOs comments on how jobs like engineering will always be essential. Like a rom-com, the answer might have been standing right in front of us, just in need of bit of a makeover, the taking off the glasses moment coming when officials offer better wages and more respect. Blue-collar work has become more attractive, as it provides a less volatile alternative that offers increasingly good pay and has experienced higher wage gains than white-collar work in a post-pandemic market (to be fair, likely starting off at a lower salary).
In the end, it appears as if difficult finances and a white-collar recession have young adults in the U.S. grabbing the manufacturing carrot that the government is dangling in front of them faster than their peers in China. As Kristen Lucas, an associate professor at the University of Louisvilles college of business tells Business Insider, People are taking a good hard look at the rise of the cost of college tuition, the less security offered by white collar jobs. And all of a sudden white collar jobs dont look as fabulous in comparison.