Chinese 'Ants' Struggle to Find Work

Thirty Percent of Graduates of Top Universities Settle for Very Low Salaries, If They Can Find Work, Says O&M's Kunal Sinha

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BEIJING ( -- Feng Mengdi, 25, grew up in a small town in Henan province, the only daughter of a couple who toiled at a local wholesale market and saved every penny so that she could go to a good school and take extra classes that would give her an edge over her schoolmates.

Kunal Sinha
Kunal Sinha
Ms. Feng didn't disappoint them. She didn't graduate at the very top of the class, but she did well enough at the National Higher Education Entrance Examination, commonly known as the gaokao, in 2005 to gain admission to Nanjing University.

She chose to study law. With law firms sprouting up all over China's cities, it seemed like a safe bet. By the time she graduated in 2009, she was no longer so confident. When she moved to Beijing to look for a job, she found tens of thousands of law graduates chasing too few jobs. After two months of desperate search, she gave up looking for work in the legal industry and found work as a sales clerk at a mobile phone store, earning about RMB 1,900 ($290) per month.

According to the Employment Blue Book published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2010, law majors had the greatest difficulty finding jobs, with 17.7% remaining unemployed after graduation.

"This is not what I studied so hard for, since the last 15 years of my life," Ms. Feng said. "Someone out of high school could do this. Some of my friends tell me that I should go overseas, with my good academic record, but how can I ask my parents for any more money?"

There are lot of new college graduates in China asking the same question, so many that they have their own name--ants. The moniker was designated by sociologist Lian Shi to describe the vast pool of educated Chinese youth whose academic qualifications don't match up with what the job market needs.

They work hard, they are intelligent, yet many are unemployable. Competition for jobs is so fierce that 30% of graduates of prestigious universities, in fields such as medicine, engineering and management, are ready to work for very low salaries, leaving them with little or no savings. Between 2003 and 2009, the average starting salary for college graduates stayed constant.

Most ants hail from small towns, where jobs are scarce. In Chinese cities, these ants lack the social capital and family support that many competitors have. They live together in cramped conditions, work long hours, and their socialization is limited to sharing stories of struggle with other ants. But they refuse to give up and go home. It would be an embarrassing loss of face.

Should brands give up on ants? I'm sure many marketers may be thinking, why bother with a group that is struggling and has absolutely no savings?

We should bother simply because many ants remain hopeful. By working hard and delivering performance, they hope to be promoted. Since China's economy continues to boom, sooner or later, new jobs will become available. According to Lian Shi's research, 83.6% of ants believe that they will improve their social and economic situation in the next five to ten years.

Most brands fuel a sense of inadequacy amongst ants. They want but can't afford the latest gadgets, trendiest clothes, entertainment or eating out--but they see that all the time in cities. These seem like the only markers of success for a young generation.

It may be time for youth marketers to take a different view and make the markers more about values such as friendship or loyalty rather than just possessions. These young men and women grew up deprived of socialization, and brands can help them make friends to ride out the struggle in the big city. Talk about enjoying the small things. Create opportunities for recognition--this is where talent shows can play a big part--and earning face. Think about creating businesses that provide skills training to youngsters and identify those gaps a college education doesn't fill.

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