Although “quiet quitting” in the US and “lying flat” in China share some similarities, their causes are different. Photo: TNS
April Zhang
April Zhang

‘Quiet quitting’ and ‘lying flat’: why the US and China cannot ignore these trends

  • Both buzzwords express a desire, by young Americans and Chinese, to live a more balanced life, against a backdrop of mounting debt or extreme stress
  • Washington and Beijing must act because US-China competition is not limited to international trade or geopolitical influence, but also the ability to give young people hope
Thanks to Gen Z, “quiet quitting” has become the latest meme in the United States. Spreading from TikTok to the mainstream media, the term describes an employee who, instead of quitting a job outright, chooses to do the bare minimum to get by at work. The idea has been compared to “lying flat”, a similar buzzword that became popular in China in spring last year.

Both terms express a desire, whether by young people in the US or China, to live a healthier and more balanced life. If we look at the social conditions they grew up in, however, we will realise that these two terms are outcomes of different cultural traditions intertwined with government policies.

The US champions individual rights, freedom and independence. And yet in 2022, young people find themselves facing mounting difficulties: debt, high inflation and lack of social mobility.

In 2022, total student loan debt stands at US$1.75 trillion, or an average US$28,950 per borrower. More than half of students leave college with debt. It usually takes nearly 20 years to pay off such loans. In addition, runaway inflation makes everything more expensive, while real earnings shrink.

With many Americans being priced out of the housing market, social mobility is declining. According to a Pew survey last year, 68 per cent of Americans think the young generation will be worse off than their parents. All things considered, when being hardworking is not enough to get ahead, quiet quitting seems to be a logical coping strategy.

An employee hands a plate of food to a student at the dining hall on the University of California, Berkeley, campus in on August 30. College students returning to campus this fall will find their dining halls experimenting with everything from fewer salad dressings to “plant-powered” Mondays as schools look for ways to adapt to soaring inflation. Photo: Bloomberg
In the mainstream media, quiet quitting has been characterised as an extension of the “Great Resignation”, a movement which was driven by people reassessing their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic and placing greater value on family, friends and mental well-being.

However, subsequent data suggests that many did not leave the workforce altogether. They merely wanted better salaries, more fulfilling roles or greater flexibility. The Great Resignation was really the Great Reshuffle.

However, this is not a cheerful trend. Quiet quitting could mean the Great Reshuffle has failed for many people, and it could be a disguise for their Great Frustration.

Pedestrians cross a road in New York on June 10. While the Great Resignation was a much-discussed phenomenon last year, it has now been revealed that many did not leave the workforce altogether. Photo: AFP

Unlike young people in the US, those in China do not start their adult lives in debt because, traditionally, it is parents who are under intense pressure to provide children with the best education possible.

Due to the one-child policy, parents have been driven by the desire for their sole child to succeed. They not only pay for school, but also numerous after-school activities that leave very little time for children to play. The after-school education industry has been accused of profiting from parental anxiety. Up until 2021, this was a big business, with companies such as New Oriental making huge profits.
For young people, academic stress in their school years becomes work stress when they graduate. This, in itself, is nothing new. But it is particularly tough to work in China’s burgeoning hi-tech industry. Private tech companies adopted a “996” work culture, where people toiled from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. It was against this backdrop of 996 that lying flat took off as a movement and became widespread.

China’s harsh zero-Covid measures risk eroding trust in the rule of law

In China, the pandemic has not made things easy either. Under the zero-Covid policy, people have been subjected to periodic lockdowns and constant testing.

Thus, it is possible to understand lying flat as primarily a reaction to excessive capitalism. The term expresses a need to unwind, to take a break not just from relentless work, but also perhaps a long stretch of relentless schooling and the zero-Covid policy.

Although “quiet quitting” and “lying flat” are similar in meaning, their causes are different and require the two governments to tackle fundamental issues differently.


China’s new family education law bars parents from putting heavy academic pressure on children

China’s new family education law bars parents from putting heavy academic pressure on children
China was swift to take action. In 2021, China’s top court and labour ministry warned employers that 996 practices are illegal, a broad regulatory crackdown was launched on private tech companies, for-profit tutoring in core subjects was banned, and the three-child policy was implemented. Moreover, the leadership called for “common prosperity”, shaking capitalism to the core.
The US has also taken steps, mostly notably the student loan forgiveness plan and the Inflation Reduction Act.

The two governments’ measures have caused controversy, and it remains to be seen if they will be effective. However, governments must act because the competition between China and the US is not limited to international trade or geopolitical influence, but also lies in their ability to create a better future for their young.

April Zhang is the founder of MSL Master and the author of the Mandarin Express textbook series and the Chinese Reading and Writing textbook series