Why young people prefer ‘jobs within the system’ in counties

By LIU CHANG / 05-30-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

A survey found that an increasing number of college graduates are opting to return to their hometowns for employment instead of staying in first-tier cities, with a significant proportion seeking jobs within the public sector. Photo: TUCHONG

“Employment within the system” refers to a job within the state organ or public institutions, and this has become a popular trend for Chinese youth establishing their careers. Employment within the system can provide basic financial security and professional development, while it also helps individuals pursue their personal goals and aligns with their values. To some extent, employment within the system is a rational choice for youth as they overcome structural challenges in today’s economic situation, and it helps them reduce professional development risks. However, if we regard such an employment choice as passively “lying flat” instead of tackling structural difficulties, we overlook the agency and subjectivity of youth. In addition, existing literature often treats young people who choose employment within the system as a unified group, neglecting the internal diversity among these young workers.

Previous studies

Existing studies have researched the growing trend of young Chinese workers returning to their hometowns or opting for government employment, however, little attention goes to the specific phenomenon of county youth returning to local government careers within rural counties. Analysis of the motives for youth who return to rural counties and start businesses or seek civil service positions is of particular interest. 

In terms of youth employment within the system, studies have shown that education, family background, and social capital are the main structural factors influencing youth’s employment choices. Further analysis reveals that the objectives for young rural entrepreneurs or rural government workers share commonalities, primarily the pursuit of a “lifestyle-oriented” approach, which allows individuals to find their own life path in a modern society fraught with risks and lacking meaning. This lifestyle can satisfy survival needs while also fulfilling the need for personal value realization. The risks inherent in entrepreneurship are in contrast with the relative stability of employment within the system. These research findings are inspiring and helpful for analyzing the phenomenon of rural youth returning to government employment in counties after studying and working in cities for several years. This career path may be a rational choice for these youth seeking a “lifestyle-oriented” approach under existing social structures and their own experiences.

Survey samples

The specific focus of this study is county youth who have studied and worked in large cities and subsequently chosen to return to employment within the county government system. The respondents in this study all come from county-level cities in the southwestern part of Shandong Province. Initially, two respondents were selected for preliminary interviews, followed by a “snowballing” strategy where more respondents were interviewed. Through several rounds of interviews the research team gained a general understanding of their basic situations, work plans, and life plans, and ultimately 15 county youth were selected as research subjects. To facilitate comparison, this study also interviewed six additional respondents, including three county youth preparing for civil service examinations, their parents, and another three county youth who chose to remain in large cities.

High housing prices in large cities have increasingly become a significant factor deterring rural youth from continuing to live and work in large cities, leading them to decide to return to their hometowns. Studies have found that against the backdrop of uneven public services such as housing, medical care, and education designed around dual urban-rural systems, youth are constrained by structural difficulties such as “high housing prices, low salaries, few opportunities, and intense competition.” The attractiveness of large cities has declined, pushing youth out of metropolitan areas. 

Data shows a sharp decline in population inflows to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen in recent years: Shanghai added only 10,700 people in 2021, Guangzhou increased by a meager 70,300 people, Shenzhen grew by 47,800 people, and Beijing even experienced negative growth of 4,000 people. Meanwhile, when choosing employment upon returning to counties, “returning county youth” are increasingly drawn to the stability of employment within the system. Existing research indicates that compared to four or five years ago, youth are more inclined to choose stable and respectable “iron rice bowl” jobs when making their first career choices, seeking out work as civil servants and teachers.

Reasons behind their choices

Returning county youth are more inclined to choose employment within the system in counties for a number of reasons. In rural environments, these returning county youth find it easier to meet their need for stability while also pursuing a respectable life. Many of the important people in their lives reside in these counties, and employment within their hometowns makes it easier to maintain contact with their existing social networks. Under the drive of national talent requisition policies, these youth see the potential of county development, which drives their interest in returning. When they sense risks, due to policy changes or uncontrollable external factors, their interest in returning shifts, indicating their unwillingness to bear risks. They tend to make conservative decisions and prioritize stability in job selection, choosing state organs and public institutions that are more consistent and stable in the job market. Although employment within the county system can be fraught with risks, returning county youth feel more secure in the county environment due to family companionship.

In recent years, research on the “ant tribe” phenomenon has found that although some college graduates who remain in large cities are highly educated, they are also vulnerable. Many of them do not lead a so-called “respectable” life. In rural environments, the cost of living and housing prices are relatively lower, and social networks are more complete. The lifestyles that these county youth cannot attain in large cities may be achievable here. 

In this context, returning to their home counties becomes a rational choice for young workers to maintain a “respectable” life. For example, when respondents construct meaning for their lives, they consider a “leisurely, low-pressure, and financially stable life” to be a “respectable” life, which aligns with the job description for government contracts and the pace of life that it ensures. Youth believe that, under the system’s guarantee, this job can provide a stable income and maintain the “elite status” of college graduates.

“Studying for officialdom” is a revered traditional cultural concept in China. Since ancient times, people with higher education have been regarded as having a high social status, akin to officials. Children from ordinary families equate receiving higher education to achieving upward mobility. Moreover, “mianzi” or “face” is ubiquitous in daily life for Chinese people, who value their reputation. Especially in rural society, the hometown is not only a functional space but also the place where individuals settle and thrive. Personal and family success holds meaning within the local value system. Therefore, everyone has to work hard for “face.” In rural society, finding a good job is a matter of reputation, and a good job often means becoming an “official” or civil servant. Parents hope their children can attend good universities and find good jobs after graduation not for material gain, but to maintain their family’s honor and reputation.

Parents have a significant influence over an individual’s life and represent a shaping force in their life trajectory. The values and concepts of the older generation have a subtle influence on the values and habits of the younger generation through socialization mechanisms. Children also hope to find a good job to “give face” to their parents. This concept is particularly prevalent in rural environments. During interviews, phrases which speak to family reputation, such as “the child is capable, because they’ve become a civil servant on their own with our help” and they “make parents proud” are frequently heard.

A stable social network is also an important factor attracting returning county youth. Now they can rebuild social networks previously established on kinship, geography, and education. Moreover, in modern society, professional connections have gradually become the primary way individual establish social networks. Thus, government employment also brings them a relatively stable professional social network.

Policy advice

With various talent requisition policies, primary-level areas show development potential, continuously attracting more returning county youth. One interviewee, who was initially hesitant to return to their home county, said the decision is based on clear career prospects and the favorable social environment offered by their hometown county, which helped finalize the decision.

Behind these factors lies the common pursuit of returning county youth — the hope for a stable and leisurely life that balances career development and survival. Some county youth stay in large cities to seek greater development opportunities, while others return to counties to balance personal development and life. Unlike the interpersonal indifference and spiritual emptiness expressed by “floating youth” in large cities, employment within the county system allows returned youth to enjoy daily life while “being near their parents after work” and “meeting old classmates at roadside stalls.” The relatively fixed working hours of civil employment gives individuals more freedom to arrange their personal time, allowing returned youth to become “leisure youth” to a certain extent. Returned youth who choose employment within the county system satisfy both filial needs and “self-entertainment.”

Another manifestation of pursuing a “lifestyle-oriented” approach is that government posts are less of an identity marker. These returning county youth do not focus on the symbolic significance attached to employment within the system, and instead emphasize the welfare benefits, social security, and satisfaction that the job brings. Although the older generation still attaches a strong symbolic significance to employment within the system, for returning county youth, such employment is more like a “protective umbrella,” providing them with a stable income and social security, allowing them to arrange their lives more reasonably.

Under the vigorous promotion of national talent policies, counties are gradually becoming a new arena for young people, especially youth returning from cities, to pursue their local dreams. Distinct from past generations, where youth moved to large cities to seek a high-quality life, the current county environment can also provide relatively complete living services for young workers. In addition, employment within the county system provides more stability and life security for young workers, building confidence their livelihoods and allowing them to pursue the lifestyles they want. 

However, existing talent policies still need improvement. County talent requisition policies attract returning youth to employment within the system, but do not expand the county’s research strength and enterprise talent pool. Needless to say, enterprises also need more young talent. The development of enterprises so that they share the benefits of local talent programs should be a concern in county talent requisition policies.

Liu Chang is from the School of Sociology at China University of Political Science and Law.

Edited by YANG XUE