Mandy Liu, a 21-year-old university student in Beijing, believes that anyone who has lived in China during the pandemic can see that the country’s future is looking increasingly uncertain. Covid restrictions were stifling, and employment opportunities were grim. She is set to graduate next year with a degree in tourism management and has submitted more than 80 applications for jobs. She has not received a single offer.
Many young people had followed what the Chinese Communist Party told them to do, only to be left disillusioned, Ms. Liu said. “What we are seeing is that people are struggling to survive.”
That discontent bubbled over in recent weeks as throngs of students, job seekers and young professionals stormed the streets in major cities across China to protest the government’s iron-fisted Covid rules. The unrest brought into view the party’s longstanding concern that a shortage of jobs and economic opportunities for young people posed a threat to social stability.
On Wednesday, Beijing caved to the protesters’ demands and relaxed many of its “zero Covid” restrictions. But the bigger and more vexing problem remains: An ugly job market with too many applicants jostling for too few jobs could mean that China’s decades of economic prosperity may soon be out of reach for many young people.
Youth unemployment is still close to the highest levels on record, with another 11.6 million college graduates preparing to join the work force next year. “The students want to protest, because we do feel that our situation is getting worse,” said Ms. Liu, who did not participate in the recent protests.
Covid restrictions drained momentum from an economy already reeling from a collapse in the property market. A government crackdown on fast-growing industries such as technology and private education has sapped opportunities in the private sector, intensifying competition for civil servant jobs and admission into graduate schools.
The narrowing prospects have betrayed the expectations of a generation of young people raised in relative prosperity as beneficiaries of an ascendant economy that provided steady employment and rising incomes for their parents. Students were told that by studying hard, they, too, could enjoy a better life.
“The promise was if you educate yourself, you will get a good-paying job. That is no longer materializing,” said Max Zenglein, chief economist at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin. “To be the first generation that is going to be disappointed, that creates a lot of emotional pressure.”
When Xi Jinping, China’s leader, addressed the Communist Party congress in 2017, he declared that “a nation will prosper only when its young people thrive.” He repeated the mantra again in October before the start of a precedent-defying third term, adding that China’s youths were “filled with greater optimism and enterprise.”
But the words rang hollow. Frustration was building with a growing number of youths out of work and the draconian Covid restrictions limiting the opportunities for young people to work, travel and socialize.
In July, the jobless rate for people between the ages of 16 and 24 reached nearly 20 percent — the highest level since China started announcing the figure in 2018. The rate has ticked down, but it is still triple the national average.
The graduates who have secured jobs are paid less. The average monthly salary for 2022 college graduates who found a job was 12 percent less than what 2021 graduates received, according to a survey by the Chinese job site Zhaopin.
The lack of postgraduation options has gotten so bad that when one prominent entrepreneur advised students to take a “gap year” to travel within China, the video went viral and came under heavy criticism for being out of touch with the challenges facing young people in the country.
With fewer private sector jobs, young people are being forced to seek alternatives that were considered less appealing during boom times. There has been a record number of applicants for graduate schools, national teaching positions and civil service jobs.
Last month, China delayed the national Civil Service exam amid a rise in Covid infections. Civil Service jobs are considered some of the most stable in the country, with the exam tracing back more than 1,400 years. Alice Li, 23, is preparing to take the exam when it is rescheduled. She will be among 2.6 million applications fighting for 37,100 jobs — about 70 applicants for every spot.
The growing demand for government jobs is a testament to how Mr. Xi has reshaped China with an expanded role for the state, forcing businesses to take a back seat to the needs of the Communist Party.
Ms. Li was working at a technology start-up in Shanghai this year when, at the height of the city’s Covid outbreak, her boss informed her that the company was laying off 30 percent of its staff, including her. After losing her marketing job, she started to prepare for the Civil Service exam — an option that she never considered until she felt the sting of losing her job.
“It’s hard enough for us to find a proper job, and harder for us to stay,” Ms. Li said. “I have to believe that the public sectors would be the last ones to fall during the economic crisis.”
China’s labor market has struggled to keep pace with the country’s influx of university students. In the last two decades, the number of college graduates in China has increased sevenfold.
While the number of college graduates has continued to grow — an 8 percent increase set for 2023 — the pandemic has also robbed students of formative social experiences during university life, adding to their frustration and anxiety.
Iris Feng, a senior at a university in Beijing, said her college life had been dominated by Covid restrictions. Before the protests, she said, her school erected a fence this year to restrict students from going to or leaving campus. Then it added a second layer of fencing, and officials installed an alarm that would go off if people got too close. Students needed to make appointments to go onto a field on campus or head to the laboratory to study. Cafeteria chairs were removed because students were no longer allowed to eat there.
“University was equivalent to living a dull, dull life. I think this sacrifice was unnecessary,” said Ms. Feng, who had not returned to her hometown in two years because she feared she wouldn’t be admitted back onto campus.
When the protests broke out, some universities allowed students to return home after months of being locked down and provided shuttle buses to ferry students to train stations and airports. Some questioned whether the move was a concession to student protesters or a tactic to disperse them and prevent them from organizing future demonstrations.
As part of China’s announcement to ease pandemic measures this week, Beijing said schools must hold in-person classes and open libraries, cafeterias and other facilities if there were no outbreaks on campus. But as graduation nears next summer, the question of what awaits these students when they enter the job market is becoming more urgent.
Elsa Han, 21, wants to work for a tech company after graduation because she does not like the stuffy office culture of state-owned enterprises or government jobs. Ideally, she said, she would like a full-time role with the large internet conglomerate where she is interning. She knows the chances are slim because she expects more than 100 interns to apply for the one open position she is eyeing there.
If she can’t find a job, Ms. Han said, she hopes to travel abroad and leave China. “In the current environment in China,” she said, “I don’t think I’m living a happy life.”
Daisuke Wakabayashi, Claire Fu, Isabelle Qian and Amy Chang Chien are columnists for NYT.