There’s a new movement taking hold among China’s 20- and 30-somethings, and it’s absolutely antithetical to the way they grew up. Indoctrinated since birth to believe that hard work and intense drive were the only paths forward, they have been competing fiercely all their lives for top university spots, good jobs, and later, the best apartments and consumer trappings of success. But now, more of China’s younger generations are thinking about giving up the struggle and latching on to what they call “lying flat” or tangping.
The term “lying flat” comes from a blog post by a 31-year-old named Luo Huazhong who decided that the stress and strife of getting ahead weren’t worth it. He quit his job, went on a 1300-mile bike ride from Sichuan to Tibet, and discovered he could happily get by on odd jobs and a little bit in savings. His blog described his experiences and included photos of himself literally lying flat – and it went viral this past spring.
Lying flat is about staying unemployed or down-shifting to less stressful work. It is giving up on marriage and rejecting consumerism and social status. It also is the very opposite of the “996” trend that was the last big thing in China’s work world. That was short for working intensely from 9 am to 9 pm six days a week – and summed up the extreme work culture that pervaded many of China’s most successful tech companies. “996” eventually inspired a backlash campaign called “996.ICU” – as in “intensive care unit,” a reference to the medical crises that over-pressured, stressed out workers were experiencing. (Alibaba founder Jack Ma’s response to the uproar was: “In this world, all of us want to be successful . . .How can you achieve the success you want if you don’t put in more effort and time than others?”)
A Brookings Institution article showed this picture making the rounds on China’s internet. A man lying flat asks, “You want me to get up? That’s not possible in this lifetime.”
“The ‘lying flat’ movement standing in the way of China’s innovation drive,” by David Bandurski, July 8, 2021
Chinese state authorities have found lying flat to be alarming, subversive, and threatening. They have scrubbed Luo’s blog from the internet, and state-supported media have started publishing articles on the irresponsibility of dropping out. (“The only way to ensure a happy life is if one works hard,” The Economist recently quoted from one newspaper). The idea of getting by on meager wages, working only several months a year, and living on two modest vegetarian meals a day is not exactly the vision of economic ambition and consumerism that the Communist Party wants to instill.
But recent news articles have interviewed plenty of Chinese in their 20s and 30s who just want to take a six-month break or leave high-paying jobs for less stressful ones. A recurring theme is that even if these young workers went all out and killed themselves to get ahead, they may not get anywhere anyway. The world has changed since their parents’ time when hard work really did pay off.
China is not alone either. In South Korea, the term “Hell Joseon” has been appearing since the mid-2010s. Joseon is a historical name for Korea, and the hell for young people is that no matter how hard you work, or how great your grades and resume are, you’re in for a hard life of struggle no matter what. Career competition is fierce, housing costs are impossibly high, and raising children is tough. The often-heard Korean term “sampo,” or “three-giving-up,” refers to the hopelessness of a generation that has had to give up on dating, marriage, and children. That has since been followed up with “five-giving up,” which adds jobs and home ownership to the list. Then there has been seven-, nine-, and 10- giving up, all the way to “wanpo,” which means totally giving up.
While the U.S. doesn’t have the fiercely competitive environment that East Asia does, there is a reassessment of the worth of work here too now. An unprecedented four million Americans quit their jobs in April. That may be a short-term reaction to the pandemic — and it likely would not be possible without the government stimulus checks people have been able to save up. But there are plenty of stories of people rethinking everything and searching for more meaningful ways to work and live.
The Economist recently wrote that according to Nicholas Christakis of Yale, past pandemics have caused three big shifts: 1) a growth in state power, 2) a search for meaning, and 3) a rise in audacity. We have yet to see how the search for meaning or a willingness to roll the dice will play out in worker preferences. But so far, multiple surveys are showing that over 40% of workers are thinking about quitting soon. Business creation in the U.S. is at its highest since 2004. And it seems, far more people are talking about working to live, rather than living to work.