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China's urban youth unemployment rate rose to 21% in June

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In June, the urban youth unemployment rate in China hit 21%. But at the same time, Chinese employers were struggling to find workers for their factories. Our colleagues over at the Indicator, Darian Woods and Wailin Wong, have been exploring this disconnect. Their conversation with one young Chinese woman with a secret offers some answers.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: A Ze always wanted to be a cartoonist growing up. She couldn't quite get that job out of college, but she worked instead as a content editor for an entertainment news publication. And initially, she loved it.

A ZE: (Through interpreter) My job was so great. I was very happy every day and felt amazing when I produced good content. When I looked at the results of our output, I thought to myself, well done. It's worth all the effort.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: Well, it didn't last. A Ze found herself hopping from job to job and ended up in a job that didn't give her a lot of joy.

ZE: (Through interpreter) There was pressure from various targets, which made my boss quite stressed, and he passed that stress onto us. Our work life was like being on a horror cruise every day.

WOODS: So earlier this year, she quit. But when deciding whether or not to take on a new job offer, she reflected on work life in general in China. In China, there's a schedule called 996. And that means starting the day at 9 a.m., finishing at 9 p.m., six days a week. And although this is technically illegal, very long hours are still common in China.

WONG: It was just too much for A Ze, and so she told her parents she was still working. But meanwhile, wearing her work clothes and a face full of makeup each morning, she'd walk to her old bus stop and then keep walking into a cafe. There, she'd take out her pencils and work on one of her hobbies, drawing.

ZE: (Through interpreter) Drawing is the best way to pass the time, in my opinion, because you'll spend most of the time drawing without even knowing it.

WOODS: And you might be thinking, how can she afford this? Well, A Ze doesn't have to pay rent or a mortgage, which is perhaps more common for young people in urban China than you might think.

NANCY QIAN: They're almost certainly going to be an only child on both sides of their family.

WOODS: Nancy Qian is a professor of economics at Northwestern University. She points to China's one-child policy, this brutal enforcement of long-term contraception, sterilizations and huge fines for having more than one kid. The policy was in place in China from 1980 to 2016, which means that most people A Ze's age are only children.

QIAN: And they'll have grandparents who are from the city. So what this means is that they're going to be inheriting a lot of real estate from their grandparents - not to mention, you know, maybe savings that their parents have been accumulating over time.

WONG: Nancy was born in Shanghai in the late '70s and, as a kid, moved to the U.S. with her family. But she goes back often and has younger cousins who have struggled with China's changing economy. As China's growth has slowed, entry-level jobs in law, finance, tech and government have dried up. White-collar jobs are incredibly competitive.

QIAN: It's the high-paying, high-skill jobs that have been shrinking in numbers. And these are what the current cohorts of college graduate students have been trained for, what they're expecting, what they wanted. They're not there.

WOODS: Nancy says these young people are both spoiled - in her words - and also miserable at the same time. There's this huge gulf between expectations and what kind of jobs are available.

WONG: In China, it's translating into a potentially huge problem for the economy. Tens of millions of young people out of the labor force might have serious long-term consequences.

QIAN: The best evidence we have, which is from the U.K., suggests that one lost year of employment in your early 20s, right out of college, results to 13- to 21% lower productivity and wages 20 years later.

WOODS: Wow, 20 years later?

QIAN: There is a real concern that those lost years of work can have serious negative impact on your lifetime productivity later on, which is going to impact the aggregate productivity of the economy as a whole.

WONG: A Ze has a different view.

ZE: (Through interpreter) Work is one of the only things that you can choose by yourself. And if you can't find your footing at work, then you don't have much meaning.

WONG: A Ze eventually got tired of all the questioning from her parents and lying to them, so she decided to confess. While her mother was watching TV, A Ze said she hadn't been working.

ZE: (Through interpreter) They said, that's OK. They very calmly accepted it, so I think they already knew.

WONG: Wailin Wong.

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.