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The Concept of “Neijiuan” or Involution

In a recent reflective assignment, one of my students highlighted the concept of “neijuan” (involution) in China, as described by Liu (2021). Involution refers to the phenomenon where increased competition and overqualification lead to stagnation in productivity and individual frustration.

This term captures the reality faced by many young Chinese who, despite higher education and qualifications, find themselves in jobs that do not match their skill levels. Involution originated in anthropology where Clifford Geertz used the term “agricultural involution” to describe how increasing labour in rice paddies did not result in proportional economic gains but rather led to intensified labour without significant improvement in living standards (Geertz, 1963). Young people in China are similarly trapped in a cycle of intense competition without corresponding economic advancement according to The New Yorker.  It describes these shorthand memes to describe work hours, “996” (nine in the morning to nine in the evening, six days a week), which was a badge of honour now mentioned in a more negative tone, particularly the way it has morphed into “007” to describe the online demands as 24 hours, 7 days / week .

Youth Unemployment in China: A Growing Concern

Youth unemployment in China is a pressing issue that has far-reaching social and economic implications. Recent data highlights significant challenges faced by young people in the job market. According to Kang, the 16 to 24 age group accounted for more than 60 per cent of China’s urban population, representing nearly 62 million people. Non-school students made up more than 30 per cent, or 34 million people. Louise Loo, lead economist at Oxford Economics, estimated that the jobless rate for the 16-24 age group could have been closer to 25 per cent in December based on the old methodology, which included school students. She noted, “And to the extent that students are [in school], doing advanced degrees, for instance, only because they have failed to find a job, then the new statistic grossly undermines the associated social and economic risk of youth unemployment”.

Graduates Entering the Job Market

In 2024, around 11.79 million people are expected to graduate from university in China, an increase of 210,000 from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Education. This surge in graduates entering the job market intensifies the competition for limited employment opportunities. China’s labour market is further stressed by its declining population and youth unemployment. The Third Child Policy of 2021 aims to address this, but urbanisation and a record-high youth jobless rate of 21.3% in June 2023 complicate the issue (Attané, 2022; Loo, 2023).

Supporting International Students

Are we doing enough to support our international students, particularly those from China? It’s crucial to address their needs and challenges as they navigate the job market. For instance, 38 percent of online car-hailing drivers have a college education or above. While intellectual discussions during rides are delightful, we must find more appropriate and sustainable solutions to address these employment challenges.

The issue of youth unemployment in China requires urgent attention and action. It’s not just about providing jobs but ensuring that young people have meaningful and fulfilling employment opportunities. Policymakers, educational institutions, and businesses must collaborate to create a robust support system for young job seekers.

References:

  • Attané, I. (2022). China’s New Three-Child Policy: What Effects Can We Expect? Population and Societies, (596).
  • Geertz, C. (1963). Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 10.1525/9780520349815
  • Islam, R. (2023). An employment and labour perspective. Fifty Years of Bangladesh: Economy, Politics, Society and Culture, 157.
  • Loo, L. (2023). Lead Economist at Oxford Economics.
  • Siddiqui, T. (2005). International labour migration from Bangladesh: A decent work perspective. Working Paper No. 66. Policy Integration Department, International Labour Organization. 10.4236/jss.2024.121007
  • SBS News. (2023). “From yoga instructors to dog trainers: The jobs the government says we need to fill”. Retrieved from SBS
  • The New Yorker. (2023). “China’s Involuted Generation”. Retrieved from The New Yorker

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