Tired generation: what are young people working in China dealing with?

Young Chinese workers are facing burnout, being asked to work 24/7 to deliver the next wave of success for the country’s ever-growing economic miracle. But some of them are finding ways to rebel, from simply refusing to go to work or being playfully inefficient in the office.

Wuyi Liu at work. Credit: Wuyi Liu

It’s 11 am in the offices of VIPkids’ Beijing headquarters, (Wuyi) Liu is reading a novel from his built-in app on his working computer, a small screen is opened up, he also intends to spend a good 40-minute checking on his social media and updating his account.

“I’ll take as many toilets break as I can, and then the same goes for coffee breaks and browsing websites without being caught by our team leader. I used to work 24/7 every hour of the day, but I had to find a way to maintain my work-life balance.”

Working in such a stressful environment means that this is the only way Wuyi can get a rest.

Wuyi is one of ten thousand workers in China who are exponents of the art of ‘Touching Fish’, which is a term used to describe playful resistance to the country’s relentless work culture.

He is representative of a larger group of people working in China who are between 20-35 years old, A.K.A ‘Gen Z’, currently the backbone of China’s economic development, as the world’s second-largest economy, and hasn’t been working for too many years now, many of them are working for the territory industry.

To practice this goof off movement at work, young people started to bring pillows to work, take naps when their boss is not around, browsing online shopping websites, and watching videos from the office, some people go more often for coffee breaks after a lunch break, fill up their cups with liquors, and walk around more in the office to make themselves look busy, but the true purpose is to do less work possible.

Wuyi said he has learned skills of how to use shortcuts from his working computer to get him off the hook of being caught, also he would constantly be checking videos he likes on a small screen, so it’s easy to close when necessary.

‘‘The master way of touching fish is to make a bluff, no matter what cases that’s work-related, big or small, even not necessary, you need to turn to your colleague’s seat and communicate. Whenever you are working with your computer, make the typing sound louder, so that it can make sure that the whole office is hearing you might be working hard, even if you are actually doing something else.’’ Said Weibo user, Small Apricot.

They are behaving this way in workplaces to quietly protest against the work culture, believe this as their work philosophy when they found no other way out.

‘‘Shortcuts on a computer are always helpful, sometimes our team leader would walk around and check if our team is working or just doing their stuff. Win+Tab to create a new tab, Ctrl+Win+Left, and right arrow to switch between tabs. It can successfully avoid being caught up when they are checking our productivity in the office.’’

The working method, to work from 9 AM to 9 PM, 6 days a week, seems to be the companies’ requirements for their employees to compulsorily work six days a week in the first and third week of the month, and then they can have a double weekend off for the rest of the weeks.

However, this working model, without allowance of any form of compensation or ask for a leave, also known as ‘996’ was firstly proposed by an online company, but sooner is being criticized because of this inhumane approach, and companies’ careless attitude to their employees’ personal life and family members, it is being widely spread saying that ‘Working 996, end up in ICU’, therefore this has triggered young generation to rebel against the working culture.

Some have even used to work from 12 AM to 12 PM, 7 days a week during the pandemic because they work from home. When more cases being uncovered from the internet indicating that workers are dying from overwork, experiencing depression, anxiety, insomnia, and companies try to cover them because of their reputation, things went up to another level.

“I have been living this life since earlier last year, I would feel exhausted for the whole time even when I have my day off, and it’s affecting my daily life to a great extent. I used to live a bit far away from the office, although the firm has guaranteed in compensating taxi bills for each employee when it’s a big shift for them, it was always almost until 1 AM when I get home.’’

‘‘Since I used to go out with friends before this role, but now I cannot, also it used to be upsetting when you get off at 11 PM, you still see 80 people queuing from the ride-hauling application, so later I moved closer to the company, also just in case I could be called to go to the office during weekends,” said Wuyi.

‘‘Most of the time, it’s not us who wanted to slack off. Earlier this year, our company officially announced to implement the big and small shifts, the board said in line with the urgent need of development and expansion, the firm has to adapt accordingly, so that is when you know you can’t even dream of having a proper double weekend off.’’

Said Wuyi Liu disappointedly.
a survey from a recruitment website found out for how long employees usually stay for overtime working. Source: www.zhaopin.com Credit: Arthur Yan

But what young people would want seemed to be really simple but yet hard to achieve, is to have their both weekends off, and can go free without worrying about being called to go back during the weekends or asked to work long hours.

Born with better living conditions, they also don’t like vain promises made up by employers.

‘‘We are a big team in our company, and some of my team members would turn to me saying they need to ask for a leave to see the doctor from the psychiatric department, because of depression, of course, tiredness is quite normal since in some cases we need to stay over the night.’’

Liu is just one of the millions of employees from other parts of China, working for interconnecting firms in the big city of China, Beijing, the only difference is that he has been working for this company for almost 4 years, and he’s also in a higher-middle position in the firm, so he knew a little more about their higher leader of the team than other new team members, his behavior and schedule.

‘‘I’d always leave the office a bit later than my boss, just to show him some loyalty, but actually, I would always take this chance to learn some new staff to enhance my work abilities, just in case one day it’s necessary for me to find an easier job. For that purpose, I have taught myself how to use the Adobe package, so it’s not a complete waste of time.’’

‘‘But of course, if you do this limitlessly, it will only cause procrastination, and you can no longer get your work done on time, so set up a time limit is a healthy way to keep the balance, no matter when working from home earlier this year, or in the office, I’d work intensely for 90 minutes, and lay back and relax for 20 minutes, even just go downstairs to grab a cup of coffee; apart from that, you also need your colleague to cover you, set your computer at a working page, or you can switch in between quickly, to have a wireless earphone, also all the equipment has to work smoothly.’’

How to waste time at work. Credit: Arthur Yan

It has even become a new way to survive for some people, somebody has already put their evidence online of being let go, the reason is fairly simple: being caught up slacking off during office time.

Although trade union exists from almost every company when labor dispute happens, workers can’t turn to trade union because they represent the interest of the company, not employees, workers can only turn to labors’ court, which will take them a long time to resolve the problem, many people realize that it’s not worth it to wait.

What if we are looking at how does labor law protect these employees? As an employee, the weakness is more obvious than you can imagine.

In the combat between employers and workers in China, it normally appears that employees have fewer self-protection protocols, without any rights’ protection mechanism. In this case, when companies use outstanding payment as a handle, any prominent rebellion would have caused the opposite result.

Needless to say, a substantial amount of middle-sized company is in lack supervising, not offering a written contract with an employee, sending payroll in cash can be quite normal.

Obviously, the labor law was meant to protect laborers, it usually works only within the court, but not outside it.

Overtime work in China, survey facts, source: myzhaopin.com, Credit: Arthur Yan.

As a recent graduate working in Shenzhen, Sai has worked in Shenzhen as a content editor in the new media industry but just found a new job recently because of the excessively long hours, he said, one of his team members would work simultaneously each weekend, sometimes just to give their team leader some passionate impressions.

‘‘Of course, I have attempted to unite someone with me from our previous co-workers, but it would be useless because you’ll never know who you can tell with trust, other people would never want to be the first one to challenge the authority, but only wish to take credit from someone else, it might be better not to do so, no one wants to be marginalized after all,’’ Sai said.

‘‘For me, our KPI (key performance indicator) each month is the biggest reason of me working overtime, my pressure coming from being scared of losing this job, being scared seeing my colleagues are still at work at 8 PM, and I’m leaving the office, so other people’s behavior from there would have affect mine, also sometimes judgments from a higher level of our company could somehow affect my career development,’’

‘‘Rumor says if you get over 35 years of age, you stand a higher chance of losing a job in the fast-changing industry, they don’t want people to be old, so basically it is not me who wanted to work this way. My last job used to be very demanding, because of the large number of tasks, I had a schedule of always have to work 24 to 25 days a month, for the past 3 years.’’

‘‘Also, I think apart from that, my previous job used to instigate this culture of ‘wolves’ instinct’, the long way of having a promotion, make outstanding workers as a pattern, it gradually changed me to become one of them, but I didn’t. It is unhealthy that most of the time if one person in office won’t leave early, other people will also follow, therefore many colleagues are willingly working overtime.’’

reasons for working overtime. Source from: m.51jingying.com, Credit: Arthur Yan.

Some bloggers from Weibo, one of China’s biggest social media platforms with the most users, went viral by sharing their method of ‘touching fish’ this year, seconded by many other workers instantly.

Although unfortunately, the most trended one, Massage Bear’s blog (tuinaxiong) has been deleted because of social pressure, yet there are still many others who like to share their stories. Such as reading a novel, using Chrome, so they can quickly shift pages with plug-in applications without being caught, playing web page games, and set up an alarm for every 25 minutes to get up for a cup of water or walk around.

Professor (JunChao Wang), from the Northeastern University of China with a different opinion and explained why the reaction from young people in China is seemingly radical, he said ‘‘From the labor market, workers would work only for obtaining paychecks to sustain their personal needs. Salary brings positive effects, satisfying demands, working, on the other hand, brings negative effects, such as tired, anger. Only if when more salary offsets negative effect, workers will act happier in workplaces.’’

‘‘Actually, just because young people have relatively less financial burden than older generations, they don’t have a family to raise, some even had to live off their parents after college. In a contrast, middle-aged people usually have the pressure from their family, either older or younger members of the family, so when more positive effect brought by salary, the more pressure they are willing to undertake from work.’’

‘‘Therefore, we are hoping to see when the young generation starts to build a family, they will act more proactive at workplaces. I wouldn’t encourage them to do it, but there should be a change as time goes by.’’

(Yu Gu) is working in customer service in a company in Shanghai, but with an open university degree, she would experience a difference from her job offer, comparing to her colleagues who have a bachelor’s degree. Comparing to her colleagues, she was offered a 5,500 RMB monthly salary (611 pounds), lower than the average 6,378 RMB per month (709 pounds).

‘‘Whenever I feel burnt out and worked out from work, I will choose to lie flat, pressure came from work, life, getting married and raise offspring, also I’d feel we cannot catch up with the living expenses, they all sometimes make me have a lower desire to consume, I would pretend to forget about the work for a moment, ask for a paid leave, go for a walk, or simply book a flight to a music concert I’d like without a doubt. For a proletariat like me, rather than worrying endlessly about those life problems, it’s better to enjoy the moment, I don’t have to even worry about my save ups.’’

Even with her status, Gu has her own opinion with this new term. ‘‘This mentality has truly given me the motivation to keep myself together when I realize things are going south. Otherwise, it would be pointless to be feeling uptight. Having a pleasant mind when working is the better way to do things more effectively. In my understanding of so-called ‘lying flat’, still means to find a better way to live, also spending more time with family whenever possible, being punctual to get off work, doing my favorite things during leisure time, and keeping a clear boundary between work and life, such as socializing, etc.,’’

‘‘Overall, I couldn’t agree that young people from our country take the ‘lying flat’ as a reaction to the rat race and 996, it can release some pressure indeed, but at the same time, I think it is the competition that makes us become better and make the whole society to move on to another level. I understand the reason why this is being commented on and talked, it’s because some have seen their social ceilings on their personal development.’’

It is somehow good to see that from this year, some leading companies of the internet industry in China, such as TikTok, Kwai, and Meituan, has announced to cancel big and small week working schedule one after another, hopefully not long in the future, there will be more company announcing their policy on offering employees’ full weekend off.

Luckily, in August this year, the Department of Human Resources and social security have made a joint statement with the Supreme Court of people, announcing that overtime working is considered illegal, endeavored to interfere and help laborers for their rights, but, in many individual cases, they still struggle to refuse ‘voluntarily work overtime’, due to overloaded work that company requires them to finish.

Professor (Fei Yan), a long-term associate professor from Tsinghua University is strongly disagreed with the lying flat culture, and said, ‘‘Lying flat is an extremely irresponsible behavior, not only to their parents but also to hundreds of millions of taxpayers.’’

‘‘Many people would now aimlessly work limitlessly in hours just for increasing more profits for the company, to reach out the targets, but how many people are working because they loved their job?’’

What are the effects of overtime work?