When Eunice Wang got a job as a strategy consultant at a pharmaceutical company in Beijing, it was a dream come true.
The dream was six years in the making: She graduated from college majoring in biological engineering, and later completed a master’s in business analytics in the United States.
But it took just three months for the 25-year-old to call it quits.
“I thought I could stay for one full year, but I thought, wow, I would rather kill myself. I’d be really hopeless,” she said.
Wang moved back to her hometown in northern China to be a barista six months ago. Such a switch from a white-collar job to “qing ti li huo” (or “light labor” in Chinese) is gaining popularity among younger people in the country.
A hashtag that translates to “my first physical work experience” has 30.3 million views on social media platform Xiaohongshu, where some users describe their new jobs as a “no-brainer.”
Such jobs include being a manager at a fast food restaurant, wait staff and cleaning crew — anything but sitting in an office.
“There’s lots of discussion online where young people are sharing about how they escaped from their white-collar jobs because they’re not satisfied,” said Jia Miao, an assistant professor of sociology at New York University Shanghai.
Wu Xiaogang, a sociology professor from the same university, added: “It is quite unusual. If you have a college degree, you’re supposed to be a white collar worker.”
A paper co-authored by Wu estimated that at least a quarter of college graduates in China are underemployed — and that’s on top of a record high youth unemployment rate. Underemployment is when people are in jobs that do not reflect their skills or training.
“What is undeniable is that after Covid-19, while China’s economy is recovering … a lot of young people really struggled to find a job. Some of them chose to look for a light labor job to try and support themselves,” said Miao.
That’s not quite the case for young workers like Wang, however, who are engaging in what experts CNBC spoke to call “a voluntary withdrawal” from skilled work.
Wang imagined that her office job as a consultant would be “really creative,” anticipating collaboration with colleagues and leaders. But she said the reality was a far cry from that.
“I didn’t have the time to communicate with anybody because of the workload,” she said.
Instead, her days were spent drawing up slides, writing reports in Mandarin and translating them to English — what Wu describes as clerical work that requires “little intellectual challenge.”
More college graduates are becoming “xiao bai ling” — or “small white-collar” in Chinese, Wu said.
Miao added that “small” refers not only to the age of workers but also their roles — which are typically junior ones that require little decision-making or personal input. This “dehumanization” of workers, however, is not new, she added.
“When our society moved from agriculture to industrialization, from farm to factories, the work did not need creativity or autonomy. You are needed in a specific position to do the same thing repeatedly,” she said.
“The same thing is happening now as our economy becomes more mature and sophisticated … A lot of young people might feel disappointed about their jobs because companies are not hiring them for a job, but they’re hiring you to operate a computer on a desk.”
“You do not have a sense of self, even though you have some sort of occupational prestige,” Wu added.
Even so, young people like Wang continue to grapple with the traditional expectation of going to college and getting a “good” respectable office job.
“I was told that if you sacrifice your personal time, if you put in a lot of effort and stay up late — in the end you will become an elite, you will be admirable,” she said.
“It just felt like if I didn’t get a ‘real job,’ everything I did before would be meaningless. There was a really strong fear that I would be a failure.”
And in China, there’s the phenomenon of “tang ping,” in which youths reject a culture of overwork and embrace “lying flat.”
The country’s rapid economic transition is what’s causing a “dramatic change” in work values, said Miao.
“For the older generation, they worked under a planned economy … where work is combined with a patriotic spirit, such that your work is contributing to a new, socialist country,” she said.
“But now, since we have accumulated a certain level of GDP and economic foundations … young people want to feel individualism. They don’t believe that their ultimate goal is to contribute to the country.”
It was only in hindsight that Wang realized she never “personally wanted” to pursue her major, or be in a white-collar job.
“I looked back and I realized it was because my parents told me to choose it, people told me that with this major I’d have a really, really great future,” Wang said.
“But I never thought about whether the job would even be suitable for me — it looks good on a resume, but will I enjoy this?”
The lure of “light labor jobs” for white-collared workers comes in the form of “more freedom and flexibility” in work schedules, said Wu — and the trade-off is less job security and income.
“I won’t encourage everyone to just quit their jobs to do this … I do sometimes reflect on my own privilege, how I can only pursue this because my parents are middle-class and I don’t have to worry financially,” she added.
Wang earned about 12,000 Chinese yuan ($1,700) a month in her white-collar job. As a barista, she earns a quarter of that and receives “a little” financial support from her parents.
But what may be priceless to her is the self-discovery Wang said she’s been able to experience after walking away from her white-collar job.
“People may say, you took a long time to finish your master’s and you end up serving coffee? A job that people who just finished middle school or primary school can do?” she said.
“The traditional Chinese thinking is: If you don’t go to college, if you don’t put in effort in your job applications, you’ll end up being a waitress, cleaning staff on the street.”
But Wang said she’s come to realize that those jobs are not as simple as many believe them to be. For example, being a barista not only allowed her to pick up skills about coffee-making, it also helped her overcome her fear of striking up conversations with people.
“In the past, I would have been really self-centered and not given [blue-collar workers] a second thought,” she added.
“But actually these jobs can be respectable too — why are some jobs considered lesser than others?”
Wang said she now finds satisfaction in her job that she wasn’t able to find in her previous one, whether it’s through latte art or seeing happy customers.
“It’s a funny thing to say, but going to work makes me happy now,” she said with a laugh.
“I was really sad about [leaving my office job] because all these years I really tried to fit the mold. But I think I can never be the person that society wants.”
— CNBC’s Ulrica Lin contributed to this report.