Does China have too many graduates? 


It’s graduation season in China, but this year’s students are finding little to celebrate.  Nowhere is this clearer than on social media. Instead of smiling for the cameras and throwing their caps in the air, as they would in better years, some students are having their pictures taken lying face-down in despair, or putting their degrees in the recycling.  One girl went viral for her unique take on a graduation portrait: still, in her academic robes, she climbed into the nearest bin. What’s driving Chinese graduates to act out like this?  

The portraits are just a symptom of broader economic and social trends. For the class of  2023, there are simply too many graduates, and too few graduate jobs to go around.  The number of students in China has shot up in the last decade. In 2012, 30% of school leavers attended university; in 2022 it was 60%. The market is struggling to create the work that could absorb the increased number of graduates. The fierce competition for jobs has led to an educational arms race, as students look to make themselves stand out from the crowd with masters degrees or foreign qualifications. The surge in Chinese students at Scottish universities since 2012 is directly linked to this trend.  

In the face of these trends, a growing number of highly-educated young people are crashing out as also-rans, unable to secure the kind of well-paid work they were promised would come as a return on their investment in education. Those who do make it into corporate roles face the world’s most punishing working culture, typified by the  ‘996’ schedule – that is, working 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week. 

Officially, China has a 20% youth unemployment rate – double that of the UK, and not far off Italy, Greece and Spain. If one adds those who went into further study instead of onto the job market, the true number is even higher. That’s before one even considers those who are underemployed, in dead-end jobs, or roles they are overqualified for. What has led to this? 

After five decades of staggering growth, the Chinese economy has begun to slow down as it matures into a consumption-driven, services-based model. Having raced through every stage of economic development in a single lifetime, China now finds itself with many of the same problems as the senescent economies of Europe and America,  particularly among its middle classes. 

The story will be familiar to any young person in Britain. China’s graduates – especially those from second-tier universities, or who could not afford foreign degrees – are facing a dispiriting future. Unable to get on the housing ladder (prices in Shanghai and Beijing can make London look affordable), they bounce from rented room to rented room instead, or continue to live with their families. If they can find a job, it is often insecure,  with little chance for promotion or even a raise. Without houses, cars, and good jobs,  they probably won’t marry, unable to meet the exacting standards of China’s dating 

market. That is, if they even wanted to – marriage rates have plummeted, as have birth rates. Though on paper the Chinese middle class live enviable lives – they can still afford holidays, meals out at nice restaurants, and new phones – the spark is going out for many. Social mobility has stalled, and few know what to do next.  

What will they do? Some social scientists fret about the potentially dire consequences of  ‘elite overproduction’, arguing that when a country produces more would-be professionals than it has the capacity to provide jobs for, they are bound to cause trouble. However, such fears may be overblown.  

Rather than lash out, many of China’s underemployed graduates are instead turning inwards, and prioritising their own lives. Some have embraced the tan ping (lay flat) and bai lan (let it rot) movements, darkly humorous online subcultures that reject striving. Tan ping promotes an undemanding, low-impact lifestyle of asking for little and doing less.  Bai lan is more fatalistic, encouraging hedonism and managed decline. 

Both movements have irritated the central government. A generation of slackers uninterested in working hard or starting families is a spanner in the works for plans for economic rejuvenation. The official response has been to tell frustrated graduates to stop moaning, move to cheaper cities, and pick up a trade. Sixth Tone, a state-backed website, approvingly reported on graduates who have set up street stalls to sell their services, much as one might sell noodles.  

Those watching from the outside can only wonder what will become of China’s glut of graduates. Perhaps it will be instructive for Western economies, which face exactly the same problem – too many graduates, too few jobs. In the end, the challenge will probably solve itself. Markets everywhere are, eventually, self-regulating. Seeing what’s become of the current generation of graduates, the next cohort will likely look for better options for their futures. The class of 2033 will have fewer students, particularly in ‘soft’  subjects like arts and humanities, and more people moving directly into work. This will have global consequences. Institutions that have come to rely on the spending power of  Chinese students should begin to prepare for the shift. 

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