Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 05/2015

A Ticking "Time Bomb"? ‒ Youth Employment Problems in China

Günter Schucher

October 2014

German Institute of Global and Area Studies


China’s leadership currently seems to be extremely worried about unemployment, and particularly youth unemployment, even though the country’s official unemployment rate is rather low. Possible reasons for this are that (1) the youth unemployment rate is actually higher than stated; (2) the inadequate employment situation faced by many young people is actually worse than the incomplete measurements of unemployment indicate; (3) particularly graduates of tertiary education institutions face a job reality below their expectations; (4) the Chinese population is highly concerned about the labor market’s development; and, (5) the state fears that frustration and discontent might trigger protests, as was recently the case in the Arab world and other countries. This paper analyzes the different dimensions of the inadequate employment situation of Chinese youth and provides evidence to support all five of these assumptions, although indications of direct actions being undertaken by unemployed young people in China in response are rather scarce. But aside from that, there are other forms of youth resistance as well. Many young people in the country vent their frustration over the internet, and opting out and cynicism can also threaten social harmony. Tertiary‐sector graduates make up approximately half of all young people entering the Chinese labor market every year and are the ones most affected by the currently unsatisfying job prospects. Though the unemployment of graduates is only short term in nature, a lack of job opportunities combined with declining opportunities for upward mobility carry strong potential to generate further uneasiness and disorder in China.