Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

China’s millennials don’t have jobs or avocados

The crowd at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap music and arts festival, 2016. (Photo: Stefan Irvine/LightRocket via Getty Images)
The crowd at Hong Kong’s Clockenflap music and arts festival, 2016. (Photo: Stefan Irvine/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Ant Tribe

What it’s about: While America scorns its entitled, avocado-obsessed trophy-demanding millennials, China has its own thinkpiece-ready generation that is likewise well-informed, well-educated, optimistic—yet unemployable, unable to afford rents in expensive urban areas, but moving to big cities anyway, living in cramped conditions, hoping to find opportunity.

Biggest controversy: The “ant tribe” isn’t solely a generational phenomena. Most ants come from small towns or farms, and while they were able to attend college and move to a big city, they may not have any connections once they get there. Guanxi, the Chinese equivalent to networking, is crucial to starting a career, and people from small towns, even well-educated ones, are often shut out.

Strangest fact: There’s also a “rat tribe.” Like ants, rats work hard and live in crowded conditions in big-cities. But rat tribe refers to low-wage migrant workers who generally live underground. Cold War-era air raid shelters have been converted into tiny apartments (averaging just over 100 square feet), where migrant workers live in crowded, unsanitary conditions to be close to where the work is.


Thing we were happiest to learn: China has done something to try and help their millennials. The country has raised the minimum wage, built more affordable housing, lowered taxes for people who aren’t billionaires, and pushed universities to gear their programs with an eye to the workforce. Hong Kong set up training programs to help graduates find jobs.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Educating China’s populace may have backfired. In the late ’90s, China greatly expanded university enrollment, going from 800,000 graduates year to 6 million within 10 years. But another decade after that, as the number of people with degrees exploded, the value of a degree dropped proportionally, and it was no longer the advantage it once was. In fact, wages for the college-educated have dropped, while unskilled workers in manufacturing are in demand, and pay for those jobs is soaring.

Also noteworthy: There are countries whose college grads are worse off than China’s. There are four countries on Earth where college graduates make up the biggest share of the unemployed—Taiwan, Belarus, Peru, and the United States.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Britain has its own version of the ant tribe: NEETs. Taken from a government report that classified youths “Not in Education, Employment, or Training,” NEET has become shorthand for idle youth, who seem to make up between 10 and 20 percent of the population (although, frankly, the statistics the Wiki page throws out are all over the place). The term has spread to Japan and South Korea, and while the actual phrase hasn’t caught on in the U.S., social scientists have began using the category—a report published in Time claimed that, in the wake of the 2008 recession, 15 percent of Americans under the age of 25 were NEETS.


Further down the Wormhole: Wikipedia describes the phrase “ant tribe” as a neologism, a word for a term that’s just coming into use. The word neologism comes from Ancient Greek (a portmanteau of “new” and “speech”). It’s not clear whether Ancient Greece produced more great writers and thinkers than contemporary societies, or whether they simply had more writing survive the ages, but many Greek writers from millennia ago are still read today. One such is Polybius, who wrote a definitive history of the rise of the Roman Republic, but also lends his name to a bizarre video game of urban legend. We’ll look at the Polybius that (allegedly) infiltrated 1980s arcades under suspicious motives next week.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in early 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.

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