Securing employment after graduating from university can be daunting. In China, where over 10 million new graduates will enter the job market this year, the competition for good jobs is cutthroat.
The optimism that many hold as they start a new chapter of their lives is often short-lived. Many companies, particularly those in the tech sector, have high expectations from their staff, and the stress and anxiety has led to burnout in many people. Some workers, often those in their 20s and 30s, have chosen to “lie flat”—doing the minimum to get by—in their quest for a work-life balance.
At the same time, there are those who choose the polar opposite, like 24-year-old Wu, a graduate student in Beijing who will join Alibaba’s ranks in the summer, after she completes her studies.
Like other students, Wu started her job hunt during her final year. After sending out dozens of copies of her CV and taking part in many interviews, she received offers from some of the most prominent companies in China, including Alibaba, Meituan, Xpeng, and popular consumer brands.
After weeks of consideration, Wu finally decided to accept the offer from Alibaba. “The only reason is that they are offering the highest salary that I can get,” Wu said. “For a small town kid like me, it’s hard to pay for the costly living expenses in Beijing, Shanghai, or Hangzhou,” Wu said. “I want to make as much money as possible to settle in a big city.”
Alibaba offered Wu an annual salary of RMB 300,000 (USD 47,300), nearly three times the average remuneration for fresh graduates, according to data compiled by the Ministry of Education.
However, Wu’s family is concerned about her decision, saying she doesn’t have to push herself so hard. There have been reports about overwork by young staff in internet companies, with some cases ending in hospitalization or even death.
China’s tech sector is known for its rapid iteration and innovation. It offers good pay for those who pour their energy into this space, but taxes individuals with extremely heavy workloads. Many companies followed variations of the “996” system—beginning at 9:00 a.m. each day, ending at 9:00 p.m. each night, working for six hours a day, often with overtime. Although this practice has been deemed illegal, many tech companies still implement it unofficially.
Based on conversations that Oasis had with young tech workers in China, the general feeling is that 996 will be part of major employers’ expectations for the foreseeable future. A 23-year-old product manager at Tencent surnamed Wang said that her colleagues are used to their overtime schedules, and she doesn’t expect it to change any time soon.
This means it’s common for Wang to leave work at around midnight, and there is peer pressure to make this the status quo. “The work is there and you just have to finish it. When everyone is taking on a full load, you also need to keep up,” she said.
This has led to an internal struggle in Wang: should she quit her job at Tencent, leave Shenzhen, and head to a smaller city like Wuhan? “But then I ask myself, ‘How can I end it that way?’ I still believe hard work pays off, and big companies like Tencent are somewhere I can learn and improve myself the most.”
Over in Beijing, Wu knows what she is signing up for if she ends up at Alibaba. She had previously completed several internships in companies in the internet sector, and has experienced the stressful, competitive work environment first-hand. “Everyone is sitting behind the same little cubicles and working late for the company, just like assembly line workers,” Wu said. “But at least I can learn a lot and get the bonus if my performance is good. That’s fair enough.”
While young people like Wu are entering the tech sector with hopes of upward mobility, there are others who are leaving the industry with just modest experience under their belts. After working for Alibaba for nearly two years, Huang, a 26-year-old algorithm engineer, tendered her resignation two weeks ago. She is now preparing to pursue an advanced degree in Taiwan.
“It was my dream to work in the internet industry because I used to believe it’s a place full of freedom and creativity. But in reality, the work pressure and intense competition really drain you,” Huang said. “I had an income that’s impossible to get elsewhere, but the cost was my hobbies, life, and time for myself.”