HONG KONG — Six months ago, Jia Zhang was still running her own small business in the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang. But it was hit hard by the pandemic, generating meager profits compared with her efforts.
“After thorough consideration, I’m out,” said Zhang, a mother of two who was struggling to balance work with caring for her parents and children.
Now she has a new job: working for her parents full time, just being their daughter. In exchange, they pay her 8,000 yuan ($1,115) a month, which is about the average salary in China.
“My job is to spend time with my parents — for example, taking them to grocery stores — and do some household chores,” Zhang said. “Also, if my parents want to go out, I would make plans in advance, taking them to various stores.”
In recent months, the hashtags #FullTimeDaughter and #FullTimeSon have been trending on Chinese social media platforms, attracting millions of views. They refer to adult children who, due to unemployment, are hired by their parents mainly to do housework and be on hand whenever needed.
Youth unemployment has become a serious challenge for China, the world’s second-largest economy, especially after three years of “zero-Covid” restrictions weighed heavily on growth. The jobless rate among people ages 16 to 24 was a record 21.3% in June, the National Bureau of Statistics reported on Monday.
Similar figures have been reported in countries such as Italy and Sweden, while in Spain and Greece they are even higher. In the U.S., the youth unemployment rate was 7.5% in June, according to the Federal Reserve.
Many full-time children, including Zhang, have posted about their experiences online. More than 4,000 have gathered on Douban, an IMDb-like site that allows people to form communities akin to Facebook groups, to discuss being full-time children.
“I like cooking, and I cook lunch and dinner from Monday to Friday for my family,” one 37-year-old full-time daughter wrote in their group. “My parents give me money without interfering with my life. I am extremely happy every day.”
Some full-time children fall into it inadvertently as they stall while trying to find jobs or pursue advanced degrees. Cici Gong, 24, jokingly calls herself a “full-time daughter” after living three years rent-free at her parents’ home in the northeastern city of Dalian and failing each year to pass China’s intensely competitive postgraduate entrance exam, which was taken by a record 4.7 million people this year.
“I went through a horrible mental breakdown when I failed my first attempt as well as a romantic relationship at the same time,” said Gong, whose parents cover her expenses but don’t pay her a salary. “The time I spent at home served as a mental buffering for me.”
Is it a profession?
As more people declare themselves full-time children, a debate has emerged about whether it is really a profession.
“Compared to previous years, young people who are now unemployed and stayed at home to study for exams have less confidence that they will succeed in their exam preparation and job hunting,” Lu Xi, an assistant professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, told NBC News via email.
“Psychologically, the term ‘full-time children’ allows room for denial and self-deprecation, which make it more acceptable to many.”
Lu said some Chinese state media organizations are trying to “rationalize” and “glorify” the emergence of full-time children as “filial piety.”
No matter the “beautifications,” he said, “the underlying essence is still unemployment, and nothing else.”
Neither Zhang nor Gong would consider being a full-time daughter their first choice. Their lives have been greatly affected by China’s highly competitive society and an economy that is recovering from the pandemic slower than expected.
“If my business had been very successful, I probably wouldn’t have become a full-time daughter,” Zhang said. “It is an involuntary decision, but it is an option.”
They both said they had received unfriendly comments from acquaintances and online commenters, who accused them of “chewing the old,” a Chinese slang term for young people who depend solely on their parents to make a living.
Gong said her relatives would even criticize her in person for “being lazy and mooching off” her parents’ money.
“It may not sound ‘decent’ to those outsiders at first, especially to those who like labeling others negatively,” she said, “but I think we should allow such moments to exist. Experiencing ups and downs — it’s just life.”
Victor Gong, Cici Gong’s father, said he was not very supportive either at first. But he soon changed his mind after talking to his daughter as well as his wife, Cici’s mother.
“I mean, there’s news about how hard it is for college graduates to pass exams and get jobs everywhere,” he said. “Full-time daughter or ‘chewing the old,’ whichever you call it, it can’t be a permanent thing. We know it is only a phase for her, [but] we wanted to give her some support when she needs it.”
“Cici is our only daughter, and we are glad to have her around, even just for a while,” he added.
Mao Xuxin, principal economist at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in Britain, said it was a “worrying” sign for young people if they are choosing to become full-time children as “it is very hard for them to get out of it and return to society.”
In recent years, Mao said, young people in China have started looking for less demanding, more short-term jobs. Then came the rise of the “lying flat” movement, which embraces doing the bare minimum to get by rather than working relentlessly. Now, he said, some have taken the next step by asking their parents for help.
Lu, the professor from the National University of Singapore, said the wave of unemployment in China “may have just begun.”
“In the absence of additional job creation, the phenomenon of ‘full-time children’ will be exacerbated, creating a vicious cycle,” he said. “The average disposable income of households will be reduced, resulting in a decline in overall social consumption, which in turn limits the social capacity to create new jobs, creating more unemployment, and thus, more full-time children.”
Some full-time children consider it a short-term option rather than a career path, including Gong, who recently received an offer to become a full-time English teacher.
Zhang said she might remain a full-time child for a while because both she and her parents are happy with how it’s working out, though she is open to new opportunities.
But she rejected the idea that she is “chewing the old,” saying that she actually worked for her parents and contributed to the family.
“Since I became a full-time daughter, everyone, including my parents, is so much happier than before,” she said. “I didn’t have enough time to accompany my parents, but now I do.”
“I cherish every moment with them. It is a blessing for all of us.”