New Internationalist

Jobs for the Boys

May 1980

Unemployment has officially come to China, although most of the unemployed are more euphemistically labelled ‘daiye gingnian’ or ‘youth waiting for work’. The Chinese are still producing nearly three million jobs yearly, but they’ve not been able to keep up with the waves of new job seekers breaking onto the market every year. Government statisticians now put the number of unemployed young people at 20 million, out of a total population nudging the billion mark.

According to Li Xiannian, a deputy chairman of the Communist Party, the number of jobless is due to a combination of sluggish economic growth and the peaking in the job market of the 1950s ‘baby boom’. The Government perhaps inevitably pins part of the blame on former Chairman Mao’s 1960s ‘Cultural Revolution’. Nearly eight-million ideological backsliders were given their pink slips during those tumultuous times and exiled to rural farming communes. Now with a softer line in Peking they are to be ‘rehabilitated’ and employed once again in their old professions.

As part of a concerted attempt to pry open more jobs, the Government is encouraging collectively-owned businesses (as opposed to state-owned) - mostly in the area of services. Young people are pooling ideas, borrowing money from neighbourhood ‘street committees’ and launching barber shops, photographic services, restaurants and handicraft shops. Work is divided equally and profits shared according to the type of work. Wages average $30-$40 a month with the difference between highest and lowest­paid worker no more than $5. Average wages in state-owned companies tend to be slightly more - about $40-$45 a month. Those enterprises are usually much larger, better equipped and better financed.

Once dismissed as outmoded ,vestiges of capitalism’, collectives are now highly touted by party officials. They are seen as a means of providing more consumer goods for the people and as the main source of employment in cities and towns. And China may need all the jobs it can find if it continues to embrace Western technology and automation with all theardourof a starry-eyed convert. Coupled with nearly 20-million high school graduates expected to join the job market between 1980 and 1985, toying with job-displacing Western technology could be a deadly gamble.

This column was published in the May 1980 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 87

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