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University graduates attend a job fair in Wuhan, in China's central Hubei province on August 10, 2023.STR/AFP/Getty Images

On a recent afternoon, 24-year-old Sharon Guan joined a sea of people queuing outside Yonghe Temple, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in central Beijing, just north of the Forbidden City.

Dating to the Qing dynasty, the temple has always been a popular tourist site for those visiting the Chinese capital. But Ms. Guan had not flown an hour from her home in Shanxi province to admire the ornate architecture or golden statues – she had come to pray for a job.

“I don’t believe in God, but the current environment forces me to,” she told The Globe and Mail. “I read a lot of people’s posts online saying that after they worshipped at the temple, they not only found a job but a high-paying one.”

Ms. Guan, who graduated from a master’s program this year, is not alone in struggling to find work. In July, the government revealed the unemployment rate among 16- to 24-year-olds had hit a record 21.3 per cent the previous month; in August, it stopped publishing joblessness data, citing a “constantly developing and changing” economy.

Even if the figures were released, they would not encapsulate the true size of the problem: Government data only cover those actively seeking work and do not take into account young people in rural areas. In an article that was later censored, Peking University economics professor Zhang Dandan estimated in July that some 16 million young people had dropped out of the rat race entirely; were they included in the government’s figures, the actual unemployment rate among the young would be closer to 50 per cent.

“I feel like my education is useless,” Ms. Guan said. After reaching out to “200 to 300 employers” through an online hiring platform, she said, she only heard back from a handful, none of which invited her for an interview.

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Her generation is the best-educated in Chinese history. The number of young people enrolled in postsecondary education hit 60 per cent last year, double the rate of a decade ago. It is also a generation that has only known a growing – often booming – economy, in which going to a top university and getting a good degree was the ticket to a high-paying job and secure life.

Those expectations ran into a wall in 2020. The pandemic, combined with government crackdowns on the tech and tutoring sectors, which employed large numbers of graduates, wiped out millions of white-collar jobs. Many young people were encouraged to delay entering the job market and complete advanced degrees instead, but that has only added to the glut of highly educated job seekers, with millions more due to graduate next month.

What jobs are available are often in the manufacturing sector – monotonous, physically demanding work that helped drive China’s economic rise, but which many parents thought they were striving to help their children avoid.

Online, young people often compare themselves to Kong Yiji, the tragic protagonist of a 1919 story by Lu Xun. Kong spent his life preparing for the imperial examinations but, despite failing to find work as a bureaucrat, refuses to take off his “scholar’s gown” and do manual labour, instead becoming an alcoholic and a thief.

Chinese officials, including President Xi Jinping, have offered little sympathy, entreating young people to “eat bitter” as their parents did, while state media have profiled university graduates who have taken on menial jobs such as street sweeping or moved to the countryside. On social media, the Communist Youth League said graduates need to “roll up their trousers and go down to the fields,” while state broadcaster CCTV said Kong Yiji only got into trouble “because he couldn’t let go of his scholarly airs and was unwilling to change his situation through labour.”

Many young people went to university precisely to avoid blue-collar work or escape the countryside, however, and prefer to stay in the big cities, where there is at least the opportunity for gig work.

Zhang Wenwen, a 23-year-old recent graduate from Xuzhou, in Jiangsu province, moved to Beijing at the start of August to look for work. Most jobs offered salaries of about 3,000 yuan ($560) a month, she said, “which is not enough to make ends meet.” The average salary in Beijing is about 16,000 yuan, according to state media.

Ms. Zhang – who lives with her aunt and doesn’t pay rent – said she found some work on Xianyu, a spinoff of Alibaba’s e-commerce platform Taobao, making a few hundred yuan a day to run errands or help people make decisions, such as where to go on holiday.

“I spend most of my time every day sending out resumés and looking for jobs, and I take orders the rest of the time,” she said. “This is definitely not a long-term solution. You still need to have a real job, but doing this part-time work can help ease my anxiety.”

Even low-level gig work is becoming increasingly competitive, however. Ms. Zhang said she’d heard of others making good money walking dogs or feeding pets while the owners were at work. But she hasn’t bothered offering such services on her own profile, “as the market is saturated now.”

“I didn’t think it would be this hard to find a job while I was in college,” she said. “We were just very unlucky to graduate at this time.”

With reports from Alexandra Li

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