A growing number of Chinese youth would prefer to 'lie flat' than work. Image: Twitter

A passive depression is taking hold among China’s disillusioned Generations Y, Z and millennials, as many quit the rat race, shrug off societal norms and expectations, and close their ears to the state’s preaching about stamina and self-realization. 

These youth have chosen to leave their underpaid jobs, forgo most consumption and withdraw socially to instead lie around the house – a repose that has given rise to the movement’s “lie flat” (躺平) credo.

Their ranks are reportedly swelling as more become disenchanted with what likely lies ahead in terms of career, relationship and social mobility. Many express on social media that they feel they can no longer endure the hardships, frustrations and emptiness of trying to get ahead in China’s workplaces. 

While they lie flat and live off their parents or meager social welfare, they are becoming increasingly bold and creative in their self-mockery, dissatisfaction and lackadaisical lifestyle.

Some refer to themselves as “chives,” online argot that likens the state’s and their employers’ perceived exploitation to “cheap chives being chopped.”

“If we chives lie flat, then it’s hard for them to cut or chop us,” read one post trending on Chinese social media since earlier this year. From that perspective, lying flat is as much about rebellion as lethargy.

With the kind of hard, menial and dull work that has become the new normal as the nation still reels from its Covid-induced malaise, many young job starters and fresh graduates have little choice or bargaining power but to work long hours for peanuts. 

‘Involution’ is the new social media buzzword among ‘lying flat’ Chinese youth. Image: Chinese state media

One example of the intensifying “involution” – a trending buzzword that speaks to China’s declining social and economic mobility for younger generations – is that up to a quarter of the take-away deliverymen employed by China’s dominant Meituan platform have at least a tertiary degree, according to the company’s 2020 annual report.

Some of Meituan’s workers reportedly make about 40 yuan (US$6.19) for a 12-hour work day. This was revealed by an investigation into the plight of these workers by China Central Television earlier this year.

For those “better chives” graduating from prestigious universities who are fortunate to beat their competition and land a job in one of China’s top tech firms, they are paid better but they must adapt to the notorious “996 culture” – meaning they must be ready to work 9am to 9pm six days a week.

Many are pensioned off once they reach 35 and their jobs are filled by “younger chives” if they are not promoted to management positions. 

Meanwhile, even the average pay of tech and other higher-tier workers is still inadequate to purchase property in any big city. For example, Tencent’s average monthly pay is 50,000 to 70,000 yuan yet the average home price in Tencent’s home city of Shenzhen was 3.5 million yuan in 2020. 

“I often find it difficult to turn up at my job in the mornings after getting off at midnight and with my pay, it’s still unrealistic for me to own a home and raise a family in Shenzhen, where the cost of living is becoming exorbitant,” said one former Tencent app developer in a WeChat group whose members are still caught up in the rat race and not yet lying flat. 

“I know that I cannot continue to live a lie about perseverance or anything because the harsh reality is the opposite of what we have been taught to believe because hard work seldom pays off well.”

Young Chinese choose to lie flat in silent protest against China’s lack of upward mobility and fair competition, real or perceived. Photo: WeChat

With dim hopes for a better or meaningful future, more and more of China’s lying flat youth are descending into what they refer to as a “low desire life”, similar to Japan’s apathetic and lethargic youth who have rejected their country’s similar work-around-the-clock culture. 

In a report about lying flat youth, the China Youth Daily said they have sought to take a page out of the “no consumption, no home ownership, no marriage, no sex, no kids and no zeal about anything” lifestyle first lived by some Japanese youngsters. 

In long social media tirades attacking the rising trend of defeatism in China’s ultra-competitive society, the official broadsheet has sought to implore young people to strive for self-actualization and contribute to China’s “great rejuvenation.”

The paper now regularly runs rags-to-riches stories about young and rising officials and entrepreneurs who achieve success at a young age. But the state mouthpiece’s claims still ring hollow with most lying flat youth who continue to resist Beijing’s calls to rouse from their torpor.

“Beijing is realizing that it may soon have fewer ‘chives’ to cut when more born in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s lie flat, as young people know that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is getting smaller and even disappearing,” said Eric Mer, a Peking University associate professor of political science.

“The actual number of the ‘lie flat’ youth is hard to estimate, but we see high staff turnover in many industries already.

“They hole up at home and lie flat because they cannot see a way out or up in a society that seems to make their efforts irrelevant. If the trickle [of lying flat youth] becomes a flow, then the Chinese economy will suffer as more people do not want to possess or consume.”

Beijing is mulling new policies to make those lying flat to stand up and contribute. 

Policies ranging from maximum working hours, statutory minimum wages, rental controls and caps on engagement and marital payments are being rolled out or updated by regional governments to entice lying flat youth into the workplace and down the wedding aisle. 

A couple take the escalator at a mall in Beijing on May 17, 2021. Photo: AFP / Wang Zhou

This week, Beijing outlined a policy drive to encourage babymaking by gradually making all childbearing costs tax-deductable. Young couples may also receive housing subsidies and cash handouts, according to Xinhua. 

“But the hope deficit is already there and the state propaganda has failed to indoctrinate them. [Lying flat youth] have even stopped ranting and raving. They are too tired or disheartened to want to do anything and too depressed to care.

“Beijing must find ways to ensure its young people share the country’s rising fortunes, instead of mere piecemeal policies to address one or two of their common gripes,” said the PKU scholar.

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