SCMP: Young Chinese professionals leaving the rat race for better quality of life

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher.

Fiona Tam

5 August 2014

While many young professionals his age are trapped in a monotonous grind in Shenzhen's central business district, Zhang Fengzhi has managed to escape the rat race. Zhang, 32, and his wife Gao Fei quit their jobs five years ago (he was a corporate trainer in Zhuhai; she was an archaeological researcher in Anhui province) to set up one of the first homestays at Jiaochangwei, a remote fishing village on Dapeng peninsula near Shenzhen.

"Opening a homestay along the coast and having a laid-back life has always been our dream," Zhang says.

"Many people think young men in their 20s or 30s should get regular jobs and strive for success in big corporations. Our parents were among the strong opponents, who believed we should live by 'honest' labour ... But if we can live a life that we've been dreaming of now, why should I waste my time and live someone else's nine-to-five life in an office cubicle?"

In Shenzhen, a growing number of professionals like Zhang are putting quality of life above material success, and are seeking alternatives to avoid meaningless burnout in the workplace.

Working hours in China are some of the longest in the world and according to China Radio International, about 600,000 people across the mainland die from overwork every year - a toll of more than 1,600 every day.

Media attention so far has focused mainly on factory workers, particularly after the suicides of more than a dozen people who worked assembly plants operated by contract manufacturer Foxconn, in Shenzhen. But white-collar staff are subjected to enormous pressures, too. Last year Li Yuan, a 24-year-old employee at the Beijing office of international advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather, died of a heart attack after allegedly working until 11pm every night for a month. In 2011, a 25-year-old employee at the Shanghai office of PricewaterhouseCoopers died from acute cerebral meningitis, allegedly triggered by overwork.

Geoffrey Crothall, a spokesman for Hong Kong-based labour-advocacy group the China Labour Bulletin, says overwork is a serious problem among mainland white-collar workers, eroding their health mentally and physically, and affecting family and social life.

So it's encouraging that some young workers are willing to opt for less stressful occupations, Crothall says.

"I don't think they represent a spoiled generation; they are simply making mature and thoughtful choices about their lives and future development."

At the Share Mood cafe in Jiaochangwei, barista Zeng Longhui sees crowds of exhausted city folks coming in every weekend to shake off the stresses of the office.

"Many white-collar people make the two-hour drive from the city centre to vent their frustrations over work and relationships, and we heal them with a different attitude towards life," Zeng says.

The 25-year-old has done some healing of his own. A former construction quality supervisor, he opted out last year after deciding that the heavy drinking business dinners that came with the job were just too detrimental to his health.

Cao Jiajia, too, left her job in a Shenzhen advertising firm last month to work as a receptionist at a Jiaochangwei homestay.

Having been with the company for two years, Cao had already tired of the work pressure and office politics.

"You don't have to be rich before you can enjoy life," says the 26-year-old who holds a degree in design. "My parents' generation work hard through their golden years and take their pension when they're too old to go to anywhere. To me, that's totally wrong.

"An enjoyable life doesn't cost you much. I used to earn some 5,000 yuan a month as designer, but spent two-thirds of my salary on a tiny [sub-let] flat at a rundown farmer's house with prostitutes living nearby, and ate canteen food cooked with gutter oil. And every morning you wake up to face fierce competition and huge workloads, sometimes working until midnight.

"I finally figured out that I was living my life for someone else rather than for myself."

Her new job pays just 3,000 yuan (HK$3,770) a month but Cao is content. There are perks working at the homestay: she lives in an air-conditioned rooftop room with a sea view and gets home-cooked meals - all free of charge. There's time to read novels, watch foreign television serials or walk the dog before guests arrive at noon.

While her parents were supportive, Cao says many former colleagues didn't understand her choice.

"They said I wasted my college degree and work experience in the advertising industry, especially when I was so close to promotion. Many said a high school student could do my receptionist job although some admired me for dropping out of the rat race."

Over the past five years, hordes of city professionals looking for quick getaways have also transformed Jiaochangwei, once touted as the last unexploited village along the Shenzhen coast, into a tourist destination.

More than 20,000 holidaymakers pour in during weekends and on public holidays, and some 200 homestays have mushroomed across the once sleepy village to cash in on the boom.

Song Ding, a tourism expert from the China Development Institute in Shenzhen city, says Jiaochangwei has one of the few beaches in the area that hasn't been taken over by luxury resorts or property developers. "The leisurely lifestyle and affordable costs makes the village a paradise for many young people," Song says.

Still, such rapid growth has strained the infrastructure of Jiaochangwei, says Zeng, whose parents were originally from the village. "The water supply, electric power and sewage treatment plant were designed for a small village rather than a tourist destination."

As a result, businesses must put up with a power cut every weekend, usually lasting one to two hours.

The Zhangs' vision of retirement has also vanished amid the boom. At first, many friends and ex-colleagues didn't think they could make a living by opening a homestay in a small fishing village, and believed they were squandering their youth, Zhang says. But their 50,000 yuan initial investment in the business has succeeded beyond all expectations; although rents have gone up 12 times since 2009, the couple now run three homestays in Dapeng and two in Zhuhai city. Their 25 beachfront rooms, which cost between 400 yuan and 680 yuan a night, are booked up until September.

Rather than enjoying a laid-back life, Zhang now finds himself dealing with bookings and fielding inquiries that seem to come in every five minutes.

While the Zhangs' work is more fulfilling and less stressful, it's not exactly easy either. Guests can be difficult, and there are tax officers, urban management officials and landlords to deal with.

Alternative havens have emerged in other provinces as more young people choose quality of life ahead of more lucrative career paths. Mainland media report that thirty-something professionals from major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai have been moving to a village on Erhai Lake, near Dali in Yunnan. They include many senior executives from property and financial companies, as well as well-known artists, directors and architects, Southern Weekly reports. Opening more than 80 homestays, coffee shops and restaurants since 2009, they have turned the tiny settlement into a escape for jaded city types.

Professor Nelson Chow Wing-sun, an expert in social work and youth policy at the University of Hong Kong, says it has become a world trend for young people to leave regular jobs for something which they find more meaningful.

"This is very much related to a change in values and what constitutes a meaningful and successful life," Chow says.

"As long as these white collar or professional people can afford to lead a simple life and don't have to worry about bread and butter issues. They have opportunities to choose a different course of life."

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