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With Graduate Jobs Scarce, Young Chinese Are Becoming ‘Full-Time Kids’

After finishing his marketing degree last year, Cheng Jun was unable to find a single decent-paying graduate role. So, the 22-year-old decided to accept a very different kind of job offer — from his parents.

Cheng now spends his time at home in east China’s Jiangsu province, working as a domestic helper in the apartment where he grew up. He cleans, walks his young sister to school, and runs errands for his family. In return, he receives a flat wage of 4,000 yuan ($550).

It’s a far better deal than what other employers were offering, Cheng says. There’s only one downside: The job doesn’t exactly command a lot of respect.

“My neighbors and even some close relatives and friends consider staying at home to be useless,” Cheng sighs. “They gossip a lot.”

As China’s youth unemployment rate soars to record highs, a growing number of young Chinese are embracing similar arrangements to Cheng’s. Known as “full-time children,” they are hired by their families — and usually paid a set monthly salary — to take care of a range of domestic duties: from performing household chores to looking after young and elderly relatives.

The trend first came to public attention late last year, after thousands of full-time children set up their own discussion forum on the social platform Douban. In recent months, it has become a hot topic on Chinese social media, with stories about full-time kids frequently going viral on the microblogging platform Weibo.

In most cases, the people becoming full-time kids are recent graduates who either can’t find a job, don’t like the jobs on offer, or want to take time out to prepare for China’s notoriously competitive postgraduate or civil service exams. Occasionally, they are simply young adults who want to take care of their aging relatives.

Reactions to the group on social media have differed wildly. Many appear supportive toward full-time kids, saying it’s good to take time out and spend quality time with family. Yet, many others dismissively describe the phenomenon as a new form of ken lao — a derogatory term referring to people sponging off their parents, which literally translates as “bite the old.”

The phrase ken lao was first coined around two decades ago, when the spiraling cost of living in major Chinese cities began to make young people increasingly economically dependent on their parents, explains Liu Wenrong, a researcher from the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Sociology.

“Back in 2006, it was a viral topic because housing became too expensive to afford for many young people,” Liu tells Sixth Tone. “Some began depending on their parents to purchase an apartment and even to raise their own children.”

The full-time children trend is being driven by similar factors, Liu adds. But in addition to unaffordable housing, young people are now having to deal with a tight labor market, making them even more reliant on their families than before.

“This group of people is not brand-new,” Liu says. “What has brought so much heat to the recent discussions is the youth employment market, which has been getting increasingly difficult in the past few years.”

To a large extent, the full-time child label is being embraced by Chinese families in an effort to counter the stigma young people face when they’re unable to become financially independent, according to Liu.

With China’s youth unemployment rate hitting 21.3% in June, it’s inevitable that millions of fresh graduates will have to become “boomerang kids” and move back in with their parents. Becoming a full-time child — with the accompanying title and pay — at least helps them feel a little better about their situations.

“This new term ‘full-time children’ is more comfortable for young people to accept,” says Liu. “It indicates that it’s a transitional role that allows them to pursue self-development.”

‘I deserve a better future’

That is exactly how Cheng sees things. He could have taken a job last year if he’d really wanted to, he says, but the job market is so bad at the moment that none of the options were attractive. The full-time child gig is simply giving him time to find a better opportunity.

“After sending out hundreds of applications, I eventually received just one offer — an office job that paid a bit over 3,000 yuan a month,” says Cheng. “That was unacceptable to my family. My parents have always taken pride in my academic performance. They believe I deserve a better future.”

Cheng believes the arrangement also works well for his parents, who both work full time. Cheng not only helps with chores like cleaning the apartment, he also walks his young sister to and from primary school each day. During the school vacations, he gives his sister hours of tutoring in subjects such as math and Chinese.

“I believe my work is worth the sum they pay me,” he says. “Otherwise, the tutoring sessions my mom would have to put my sister in would cost her even more.”

Still, Cheng insists that the role will only be temporary. In a few months, he will retake the postgraduate entrance exams in the hope of winning a place on a master’s degree program.

“Although I get paid for my work, the fact that I get paid by my parents still makes me uncomfortable,” says Cheng. “With a better diploma, I’ll have a better chance of securing a decent job outside the family.”

Though most full-time children, like Cheng, appear to view the role as a stopgap, others see it as a long-term job — especially those who have elderly parents with chronic health conditions.

Zhu, a 27-year-old from Shanghai, quit her job at a film company and moved back into the family home in 2021. Since then, she has spent her time taking care of her parents, who are both in their late 60s and have previously been hospitalized with heart problems.

“The hashtag going viral has made it easier for me to explain what my job is at the moment,” says Zhu, who declined to reveal her full name due to privacy concerns. “I used to tell my friends I was jobless. Now, I can directly say that I’m a full-time daughter.”

A few different factors pushed Zhu to give up her career. In 2021, the film company where she was working was being taken over by a new management team, and she felt like she might find things difficult under the new bosses. Plus, her parents had recently experienced several medical emergencies, which were something of a wake-up call for Zhu.

“I finally realized that they’re getting old,” Zhu recalls. “I have to treasure the time when they’re still healthy enough to move around easily. My companionship will lose a lot of its meaning if my parents are too old or too sick to walk. By then, they might feel they’ve lost their dignity if they can only lie in bed and wait for others to care for them.”

Her parents were not supportive at first. Zhu’s father — who owns a business and had used his connections to get Zhu the job at the film company — could not understand why his daughter wanted to throw away such an opportunity.

“They believed it was a decent job,” says Zhu. “Also, they couldn’t accept that a young person would want to stay at home, which they felt shows they’re not thinking or acting positively.”

But over time, Zhu’s parents have changed their minds. They have seen the benefits of having Zhu there, ready to help them whenever they have to go into hospital or visit the doctor, Zhu says.

“I’m afraid they’ll have difficulties understanding the doctors’ explanations or advice,” she says. “I can also plan the most convenient routes for them inside a big hospital.”

Zhu realizes that she is privileged to be able to care for her parents in this way. Her father still earns a high income from his company, and the family continues to employ a cleaner to take care of the housework.

As a result, Zhu’s only responsibilities are to accompany her parents on walks, and to keep a close eye on their health. In return, she is paid 15,000 yuan a month — far more than the 3,000-4,000 yuan most full-time children say they receive.

In addition, Zhu doesn’t have to worry too much about her long-term financial security. Once her parents are gone, the ownership of her father’s company will almost certainly pass to Zhu and her sister.

Codependent families

Lu Juan, a 27-year-old who lives in central China’s Henan province, has been a full-time child since the start of 2023. Like Zhu, she made the decision after a parental health scare — in her case, her father’s surgery.

But in reality, her parents don’t need her help that much. Lu’s parents are only in their 50s and are in decent health, and Lu’s duties as a full-time child mainly revolve around cooking, cleaning, and doing laundry.

For Lu, being a full-time child is more about spending time with her family. As a child, she never had the opportunity to be close with her parents. They were migrant workers who spent most of the year working in the city, while Lu was “left behind” in the countryside.

“I spent my childhood away from my parents,” she tells Sixth Tone. “I want to experience life with my parents.”

Lu’s parents appear happy to play along — for now, at least. They reimburse Lu for everything she buys for the family, and promise to give her an annual salary of around 40,000 yuan for the housework she does.

“If both parties agree to this idea, being a full-time child is a good thing,” Lu says.

But Lu is having a hard time convincing her parents to make her full-time child gig a long-term arrangement. She feels it’s important that children look after their parents as they get older. But according to Chinese tradition, that role is taken on by a son rather than a daughter — and Lu’s parents want their daughter to stick to her traditional role.

“They hope I can get married and have my own family as early as possible,” says Lu. “As for their retirement life, they’re placing more expectations on my younger brother. It’s hard to deny that they value the son more than the daughter. They’ve always been more willing to invest money and time in my younger brother.”

In her research, Liu has found that this kind of dynamic is common among Chinese families. Parents are often anxious about getting the care they need as they get older, but they rarely expect too much of their children — especially if they are from the notoriously spoiled one-child generation.

“They’re typically incapable of handling domestic work or aren’t mentally strong enough,” says Liu.

In reality, full-time child arrangements are usually about the parents supporting the children, rather than the other way around, Liu says. And Chinese parents are often willing to do so, as they are happy to have an excuse to keep their children at home.

“In China, parents are more emotionally dependent on their children, while children are more financially dependent on their parents,” says Liu. “That’s how the full-time children trend can continue and spread.”

For Zhang, 31, becoming a full-time daughter is more about returning a favor. Unlike the other full-time kids who spoke with Sixth Tone, she is already married and has two children.

Until recently, Zhang was working long hours running her own fashion store in the eastern city of Hangzhou, and was working “from daybreak to dark.” Her parents, who are both around 60 years old, had to move into her apartment to help take care of Zhang’s children, as Zhang herself was rarely at home.

“That was unfair to them — they deserve an easier life at their age,” says Zhang.

When Zhang’s business began to struggle during the pandemic, she realized that it no longer made sense to carry on living that way. She decided to close her store, and take over as the family’s main caregiver.

Now, Zhang spends her time taking care of her children and her parents, cooking for the whole family, taking her parents on short trips, and accompanying them on hospital visits.

The new arrangement has increased the financial pressure on the family. The income from Zhang’s business is gone, and her parents now pay her 8,000 yuan a month — which is 40% of their pension payments — to perform her duties as a full-time kid.

But Zhang insists the emotional payoff is worth it. Before, she was always stressed, and rarely saw her parents even though they lived under the same roof due to her long hours. Now, she takes them to restaurants and tourist sites, and they “have a lot of fun,” she says.

On Chinese social media, full-time children are often criticized for taking their parents’ money. But Zhang says she doesn’t feel bad about it at all.

If she didn’t take care of her parents, the family would just have to hire an ayi to do the job instead. And — as their only child — Zhang will inherit all her parents’ money anyway one day. It’s basically just an advance on her inheritance.

“They’ll give it to me sooner or later,” says Zhang. “If they give some of it to me as a monthly salary, their quality of life improves. We’re both benefiting from it.”

This is also a common attitude in Liu’s experience — especially among people from China’s one-child generation.

“Parents and their children are considered as one united entity — the one-child generation has strengthened this awareness that parents’ assets will belong to their child sooner or later,” says Liu. “So, when parents have sufficient financial resources, they want to prioritize the safety of their children, to keep them close by themselves, and to make their lives easier. This is a unique part of Chinese family culture.”

But Liu warned that parents should be careful about being too overprotective. Children can live off their family’s resources for a while — but eventually the money will run out.

“The future of each family lies with the next generation,” says Liu. “If they keep taking from the older generations, there won’t be enough resources left one day.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image:Stokerbit/VectorStock/VCG)

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